Teleportation makes you sick: Tips to train your body and mind for virtual reality
I brought my Oculus Rift, along with a Razer Blade laptop on loan from Razer, to PAX Australia so I could show the hardware to my co-workers at Penny Arcade and a few developers and educators who have yet to see it. A good time was had by all, and I was able to give a series of demos to a variety of people; it was fascinating to see their reactions and test how well they held up in the virtual environments I threw at them.
This is the story about how I made a bunch of people sick, and how we’re going to try to avoid that situation in the future.
Teleportation makes you sick
Your brain has plenty of time to get used to the shift from one real-world environment to the next. You’ll likely change your clothes if you’re going to go underwater, and then get on a boat, put on equipment, and jump over the side before going on your dive. There are stages to the experience, and it flows in one long, continuous, linear path with many smooth transitions.
The same goes for something like skydiving; the time you spend putting on your equipment, talking to the pilot or instructor, getting in the plane, and flying to where your jump will take place is a narrative. Your brain deals with these things one step at a time. These experiences may make you nervous, but they won’t often make you ill.
You have no such luxury in virtual reality. I can put you in the Rift, and you close your eyes in the physical space we share and open them underwater. Or in the air. Or flying a space ship, or riding a rollercoaster, or any number of other experiences. The time between these experiences can be measured in seconds.
Your brain, to put it bluntly, tends to take a giant dump all over itself to compensate. Many people become ill.
“The disorientation upon leaving the projected space is some real shit. At least, it was for our test crew,” Jerry wrote about the experience. “Being in VR is something that you can get good at, presumably - another ‘environment’ you can acclimate to. But going between radically distinct spaces still requires a kind of consciousness ‘tax’ you can feel as you switch. It felt like coming up from a dive.”
You get used to it. I’ve spent literal hours inside certain virtual worlds, and I can switch between worlds and experiences nearly on the fly without feeling sick to my stomach, but this takes practice; you need to earn your sea legs. There is a reason that characters in science fiction often throw up after teleportation, and those scenes now seem prescient. We’re simply not equipped to deal with instant transitions between very different realities.
Many people feel the effect most strongly when you place the headphones over their ears. Suddenly they’re not just looking around a virtual world, talking to someone in the room so they stay anchored in the “real” world, but they’re in the game, completely cut off from the reality they were in just a few seconds ago. I’ve had people tell me it feels like their gut rolls over, or there is a brief sensation of falling.
Dabe Alan, PAR’s photographer, nearly fell over when he first tried the Rift while wearing a good set of headphones.
It’s easy to mess with someone who is in virtual reality, although doing so is borderline cruel. Anything that increases the dissonance between what the person inside is seeing and hearing from the game and the stimulus from the “real” world will be distracting, and in many cases disturbing.
If your brain thinks it’s in an underwater ship, why can you hear people faintly talking? You look behind yourself, but you see only the back of your vessel, although that’s where you hear the voices. Being touched is nearly intolerable for some people after they’ve settled into a virtual world; it is incredibly difficult to feel someone’s hands on your body when you look around and see no one around you.
In short, we’re just not built for this, and in many ways you're spending time with half your senses tuned to one world and the others paying attention to the other.
There are certain things you can do to minimize these effects.
How to not lose your shit in virtual reality
The trick is to take your time, and manage your transitions between worlds. If I’m guiding someone through a demo, I like to tell them to keep their eyes shut as I’m putting on the headset and the headphones, and to only open them once the graphics are loaded, the view is adjusted appropriately, and they’re ready to begin.
The instinct is to keep your eyes open through the whole experience, but that only increases the discomfort, not to mention the fact that the Rift shows a distorted desktop and menus until the VR-ready game or demo is launched. Trying to make sense of the broken image is a short trip to a crushing headache.
Take a minute and enjoy a few deep, slow breaths before opening your eyes. Explain to yourself what’s going to happen. Think about what it’s going to be like to be in space, or underwater; allow your brain a bit of time to get used to the idea that you’re going to open your eyes and think you’re in a new location, although you haven’t physically moved. This is a very strange, new thing you’re trying, and it’s very likely you’re going to feel weird the first few times it happens.
You don’t need to reach for the controller the moment you open your eyes, and it’s worth taking a few moments to look around. Check out the ceiling, the floor, and look behind you. Try to minimize the sounds that aren’t coming from the game so you the only stimuli you’re experiencing is coming from the Rift and headphones. Get comfortable. Breathe.
It’s easier to move with a wired controller, rather than the mouse and keyboard, but make sure no one else touches the controller. There is nothing more immediately disconcerting than feeling like someone has virtually grabbed your head and is causing your view to shift. If someone has to take control of the game for you, close your eyes while they move your avatar, and ask when they’re ready for you to open them again.
Removing the headphones and closing your eyes has the same effect as removing the headset, and once again if you decide to leave the virtual environment it’s a good idea to keep your eyes closed for a bit and breathe deeply. Picture your real environment before you open your eyes. Get used to the idea that you’re going back to reality. If you simply rip the helmet off and begin to look around the real world with no transition, you’ll likely feel it in your gut.
These steps may seem unnecessarily, but they help, and they’ll remove the majority of the vertigo new users feel when trying the Rift. After a few trips in and out your brain begins to get used to things, and the effect of shifting between realities won’t be so pronounced.
Some people have no problems at all from the jump; Penny Arcade’s Mike Fehlauer happily floated around a space station for around 15 minutes and jumped right into a puzzle game he enjoyed for close to half an hour during his first session, but that instant level of comfort is rare. He thought he was only playing for a few minutes, and apologized when he realized he had been inside the games for around an hour. I had simply made myself a cup of tea and read some Game of Thrones.
I felt like a character in a science fiction novel as I sat on the balcony of my rented Melbourne apartment, sipping a cup of tea, and looking in to make sure my friend's body wasn't in danger while his mind was so far away.
Learning from experience
Showing so many people the hardware taught me a good amount about what not to do when it came time to give people demos. Taking more time to transition in and out of each game was very helpful, as was minimizing the background noise of the room. It helps to have someone who knows what they're doing to walk you through this stuff, but with a little practice you get good at being your own guide.
Your brain catches up after a few sessions and you'll no longer need to spend quite as much time preparing yourself for what you're about to see and do, but spending a significant amount of time in virtual reality is a learned skill, and it may not come naturally to all people. Good, high quality virtual reality has only been available for a very limited time via the Oculus Rift, and we're still taking baby steps into the virtual world. It's best to go slow; no one wants to get sick.