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Virtual Reality Sickness – Fact or Myth?

Is Cybersickness A Myth?

Since the release of the Virtual Boy in the mid 90’s, I’ve been hearing that VR gives massive migraines. A term for VR induced sickness was coined called Virtual Reality Sickness. It is also known as Cyber Sickness.

We also heard of many cases of VR sickness when the 2DS and 3DS both first hit the market. Hordes of parents made the complaint that the 2d and 3d mobile gaming units were giving their children headaches and other ailments as they made returns.

The subject seemed to die out pretty quickly. Now with the VR headset race at our doorstep, this question has arisen once again! So lets do a little digging to see if we can myth bust this topic.

z2418jhvhjvFrom Wikipedia

Virtual reality sickness (also known as cybersickness) occurs when exposure to a virtual environment causes symptoms that are similar to motion sickness symptoms. The most common symptoms are general discomfort, headache, stomach awareness, nausea, vomiting, pallor, sweating, fatigue, drowsiness, disorientation, and apathy. Other symptoms include postural instability and retching. Virtual reality sickness is different from motion sickness in that it can be caused by the visually-induced perception of self-motion; real self-motion is not needed. It is also different from simulator sickness; non-virtual reality simulator sickness tends to be characterized by oculomotor disturbances, whereas virtual reality sickness tends to be characterized by disorientation.

Virtual reality sickness may have undesirable consequences beyond the sickness itself. For example, Crowley (1987) argued that flight simulator sickness could discourage pilots from using flight simulators, reduce the efficacy of training through distraction and the encouragement of adaptive behaviors that are unfavorable for performance, compromise ground safety or flight safety when sick and disoriented pilots leave the simulator. Similar consequences could be expected for virtual reality systems. Although the evidence for performance decrements due to virtual reality sickness is limited, research does suggest that virtual reality sickness is a major barrier to using virtual reality, indicating that virtual reality sickness may be a barrier to the effective use of training tools and rehabilitation tools in virtual reality.

There are various technical aspects of virtual reality that can induce sickness, such as mismatched motion, field of view, motion parallax, and viewing angle. Additionally, the amount of time spent in virtual reality can increase the presence of symptoms. Mismatched motion can be defined as a discrepancy between the motion of the simulation and the motion that the user expects. It is possible to induce motion sickness in virtual reality when the frequencies of mismatched motion are similar to those for motion sickness in reality, such as seasickness. These frequencies can be experimentally manipulated, but also have the propensity to arise from system errors. Generally, increasing the field of view increases incidence of simulator sickness symptoms. This relationship has been shown to be curvilinear, with symptoms approaching an asymptote for fields of view above 140°. Altering motion parallax distances to those less than the distance between the human eyes in large multiple-screen simulation setups can induce oculomotor distress, such as headaches, eyestrain, and blurred vision. There are fewer reports of oculomotor distress on smaller screens; however, most simulation setups with motion parallax effects can still induce eyestrain, fatigue, and general discomfort over time. Viewing angle has been shown to increase a user’s sickness symptoms, especially at extreme angles. One example of such an extreme angle would be when a user must look downwards a short distance in front of their “virtual feet”. As opposed to a forward viewing angle, an extreme downward angle such as this has been shown to markedly increase sickness in virtual environments. Time spent immersed in a virtual environment contributes to sickness symptom presence due to the increasing effects of fatigue on the user. Oculomotor symptoms are the most common to occur due to immersion time, but the nature of the user’s movements (e.g., whole-body vs. head-only) is suggested to be the primary cause of nausea or physical sickness.


With the integration of virtual reality into the more commercial mainstream, issues have begun to arise in relation to VR sickness in head mounted gaming devices. While research on head mounted VR for gaming dates back to the early 2000s, the potential for mass usability has only become recently realized.

While certain features are known to moderate VR sickness in head mounted displays, such as playing from a seated position rather than standing, it has also been found that this merely puts off the onset of sickness, rather than completely preventing it. This inherently presents an issue, in that this type of interactive VR often involves standing or walking for a fully immersive experience. Gaming VR specialists argue that this unique brand of VR sickness is only a minor issue, claiming that it disappears with time spent (multiple days) using the head-mounted displays, relating it to “getting your sea legs”. However, getting users interested in sickness for multiple days with the promise of “probably getting over it” is a struggle that developers of head-mounted gaming tech are struggling with. These same developers also argue that it has more to do with the individual game being played, and that certain gaming aspects are more likely to create issues, such as change in speed, walking up stairs, and jumping, which are all, unfortunately, fairly normal game functions in the predominant genres.

Some companies, such as Valve, have been developing and addressing these issues with simulator sickness for more than ten years. While Valve’s currently nameless VR head mounted display (HMD) is not yet being marketed or tested to the extremes of the Rift or the PlayStation VR, users who have been able to test it have argued for drastic differences in the likeliness of sickness. It is an important note, however, that Valve’s HMD has been purely used for research, and is not a commercial product like the Rift or the PlayStation VR; having said that, it is not out of the reach of possibility that Valve’s HMD will be the slowest to commercial availability, but the most thoroughly researched and properly constructed to address the issues of simulator sickness in this unique type of display.


Individuals vary widely in their susceptibility to simulator and virtual reality sickness. Some of the factors in virtual reality sickness are listed below:

  • Age: Susceptibility to motion sickness is highest between the ages of 2 and 12. It then decreases rapidly until about age 21, and continues to decrease more slowly after that. It has been suggested that virtual reality sickness might follow a similar pattern, but more recent research has suggested that adults over the age of 50 are more susceptible than younger adults to virtual reality sickness.
  • Postural stability: Postural instability has been found to increase susceptibility to visually-induced motion sickness. Not surprisingly, it is also associated with increased susceptibility to nausea and disorientation symptoms of virtual reality sickness.
  • Flicker fusion frequency threshold: Because flicker in the display has been associated with increased risk of virtual reality sickness, people with a low threshold for detecting flicker may be more susceptible to virtual reality sickness.
  • Ethnicity: Asiatic people may be more susceptible to virtual reality sickness. Chinese women appear to be more susceptible to virtual reality sickness than European-American and African-American women; research suggests that they are more susceptible to vision-based motion sickness. Tibetans and Northeast Indians also appear to be more susceptible to motion sickness than Caucasian people, suggesting that they would also be more susceptible to virtual reality sickness, since susceptibility to motion sickness predicts susceptibility to a wide range of motion-sickness related disturbances.
  • Experience with the system: Users seem to become less likely to develop virtual reality sickness as they develop familiarity with a virtual reality system. Adaptation may occur as quickly as the second exposure to the virtual reality system.
  • Gender: Women are more susceptible than men to virtual reality sickness. This may be due to hormonal differences, or it may be because women have a wider field of view than men. Women are most susceptible to virtual reality sickness during the ovulatory period of their menstrual cycle, but a wider field of view is also associated with an increase in virtual reality sickness.
  • Health: Susceptibility to virtual reality sickness appears to increase in people who are not at their usual level of health, suggesting that virtual reality may not be appropriate for people who are in ill health. This includes people who are fatigued; have not had enough sleep; are nauseated; or have an upper respiratory illness, ear trouble, or influenza.
  • Mental Rotation Ability: Better mental rotation ability appears to reduce susceptibility to virtual reality sickness, suggesting that training users in mental rotation may reduce the incidence of virtual reality sickness.
  • Field Dependence/Independence: Field dependence/independence is a measure of perceptual style. Those with strong field dependence exhibit a strong influence of surrounding environment on their perception of an object, whereas people with strong field independence show a smaller influence of surrounding environment on their perception of the object. While the relationship between field dependence/independence and virtual reality sickness is complex, it appears that, in general, people without a strong tendency towards one extreme or the other are most susceptible to virtual reality sickness.
  • Motion Sickness Sensitivity: Those who are more sensitive to motion sickness in reality are also more sensitive to virtual reality sickness.
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I love Wikipedia. I only intended to share the 1st paragraph of this Wiki article. But as you can see, they covered all the bases for me. I don’t think I can beat this. Lol! So there you have it.

Cyber Sickness is not a myth. It seems VR developers are rushing this technology, and need to take Valves lead with more testing. Gamers are not lab rats. I’ve been dreaming of VR for 20 years also, but would rather not have to “get my sea legs” to enjoy it. Which days worth of sickness doesn’t seem very enjoyable to me.

It also seems the long term effects of VR are still unknown. Our vision is one of our most important life instruments. The risk of permanent blindness or a lifelong migraine hardly seem worth being on the cutting edge of virtual technology.

In conclusion, I’m very excited about the idea of VR being perfected. But since it is being marketed before reaching perfection, I think I can wait. My eyes and mind are far to important to allow to be test subjects. Hopefully there are no bad side effects, but I’d rather be safe than sorry.  Good luck to those of you brave enough not to have patience.

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About the author

Phil Williams

Founder & President of GameTraders USA.

“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”
-Dr. Seuss

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