VR-induced ‘cybersickness’ could soon be eradicated with a clever new algorithm

Jaron Lanier, the man who coined the term “virtual reality,” tells a story about how, in the 1980s, Steven Spielberg had Lanier’s lab demo some VR tech for the studio boss at Universal Pictures. The movie executive was receptive, but asked Lanier whether the VR headsets would make people sick. Lanier said that, in their present state, there was a chance that they could, but that the lab would continue working on this problem until it was no longer a concern.

“Kid,” said the studio executive, addressing the then-twentysomething-year-old Lanier. “You don’t know the first thing about entertainment. I want to see headlines about my janitors quitting because of the vomit.”

It’s a great anecdote. It’s also one that highlights the difference between those who view VR as a fun, short-term gimmick, and those who see it as a long-term, valuable platform for experiencing simulated reality.

Put simply: If it’s the former, vomit is good. If it’s the latter, it’s most certainly not. The majority of people working in VR, or buying VR headsets, would probably lean toward the second of these two options.

A solution is at hand

Kagenova

It’s these people that Jason McEwen, a professor of Astrostatistics and Astroinformatics at University College London, and the founder and CEO of a startup called Kagenova, is trying to help. McEwen’s startup has created a new algorithm it claims can help reduce VR-induced barfing — or, as it’s better known, cybersickness.

“In my opinion, cybersickness has been the biggest hurdle to the uptake of VR,” McEwen told Digital Trends. “Systems of old had very large lags and low refresh rates. These long delays also induced cybersickness. Great progress was made in the early to mid-2010s, essentially eliminating significant lags and greatly increasing frame rates. Nevertheless, outstanding technical hurdles have remained. At Kagenova, we are attempting to solve problems such as these to help usher in mass adoption of VR.”

The company’s system, called Copernic360, alleviates cybersickness by bringing six-degrees-of-freedom motion to 360-degree VR experiences. This is content, such as 3D videos, which are filmed on static cameras covering all surrounding directions, letting viewers look around inside scenes in a way that makes them feel like they are actually there.

The idea of simulating motion, essentially adding even more motion, to a VR experience, might sound counterproductive. A person getting queasy in virtual reality surely needs less motion, not more. But that’s not accurate. VR sickness — symptoms of which can include headache, vertigo, and nausea — is thought to be due to a conflict between the body’s vestibular system, which contributes to balance and spatial orientation, and the visual system. One of these experiences motion when using VR, while the other does not. This mismatch of signals is what is believed to trigger motion sickness.

Putting the brain right again

“With Copernic360, when the user moves in the physical world, their motion is reflected in the virtual world,” McEwan said. “Their vestibular system, which senses their physical motion, matches what is experienced by their visual system. By ensuring these two systems remain in harmony, and not in conflict, Copernic360 eliminates the visual-vestibular conflict of standard 360-degree VR experiences.”

Essentially, what it does is to use A.I. to morph images ever-so-slightly in order to add movement. It’s a bit like how animation “in-betweeners” draw extra frames between keyframes to make movement seem smoother. “The user is then able to move about in the reconstructed scene, and novel synthetic viewpoints are then rendered on the fly and served to the user depending on their position in the scene,” continued McEwen.

The Copernic360 system was recently put through its paces using HTC Vive headsets by researchers at Royal Holloway University of London.

“We asked participants to walk and look around in an immersed 360-degree VR environment,” Elisa Ferrè, a senior lecturer in Perception, Action and Decision Making in Royal Holloway’s department of psychology, told Digital Trends. “We presented a neutral VR scenario which consisted of a beach, and participants were asked to explore it for about 10 minutes. In one experimental session, participants were exposed to standard 360-degree VR, while in another session they were exposed to Copernic360. At the end of each experimental session, participants were asked to complete a questionnaire about cybersickness symptoms.”

The participants reported experiencing 33% less nausea when they were using the Copernic360.

A work in progress

To be clear, this is not a catch-all solution for removing cybersickness. Different uses of VR will require different approaches. The key to reducing cybersickness appears to involve simulating the altered or missing sensory signal — which could alternatively be done using the likes of artificial vestibular stimulation or special motion platforms. The Copernic360 is designed specifically for 360-degree VR in which the user is free to move, but normally visual information about self motion is not corroborated.

“The main issue related to cybersickness is, in my opinion, the level of precision of the vestibular organs,” Ferrè said. “[It] is not easy to mimic the sophistication of the signals transmitted by the vestibular system in terms of rotational and translational acceleration of the head. [However,] by developing effective multisensory VR experience, we might be able to overcome current limitations and improve VR immersion.”

A paper describing the recent research, titled “Reducing cybersickness in 360-degree virtual reality,” is available to read online.

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