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Virtual Reality Headset User Experience is Simultaneously Exciting and Unpleasant

By February 23, 2016Article

For people who have worn the current “facebrick” type of virtual reality (VR) devices, the experience can elicit delight, excitement, nausea and eyestrain at the same time. The complexities of properly addressing these “human centric” issues are extremely challenging and the current, early generation VR headsets do not come close to meeting these requirements. 

How can such extremes in the user experience be simultaneously possible? The answers lie in the complexities of the human brain and eyes. The human eye, our visual cortex, and the interactions in our brain have very specific input requirements that produce specific reactions to various stimuli. First, when enough of our vision is stimulated, including some peripheral vision, our brains process the event as experiential. This becomes our source of delight and excitement with VR. Second, our eyes have their own requirements, which include the ability to focus on the generated images. If the optics in the system impair the ability to focus properly, it induces eyestrain.

Various hardware shortcomings, combined with poor content creation, are causing the user-experience issues in early-generation VR headsets. 

Causes of VR motion sickness, panic and anxiety 

The U.S. military has used virtual reality systems to train pilots since the 1980s. Military leaders have made every effort to reduce motion sickness through hardware and software designs. In fact, their number one concern has been mitigating motion sickness for pilots. Yet, even with that emphasis, they have only been partially successful in eliminating the problem after three decades. So this problem is very difficult. 

Motion sickness has many causes. Dr. Charles M. Oman, the director of the Man Vehicle Lab at M.I.T., believes neuroscience may confirm the traditional explanation known as the sensory conflict theory. This theory holds that motion sickness arises because of a conflict in the inner ear when the perception of movement in the brain doesn’t match stored patterns. 

To help mitigate this problem, reducing the latency between moving one’s head and the VR visual content can help a little; but it’s not a cure-all. It seems that any differential between what we see (the visual cortex part of the brain) and our physical balance (the vestibular part of our brain) induces motion sickness. 

Dr. Thomas A. Stoffregen, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Minnesota, suggests that motion sickness may worsen with the proliferation of digital devices and displays – for example, when we bury our noses in smartphones while flying through turbulent skies or when we play video games on moving buses. Dr. Stoffregen published research on young adults who get queasy in front of a stationary Xbox or PlayStation. Anecdotal reports also suggest that Google Glass and Apple’s iOS 7 mobile platform can induce motion sickness. 

Viewing virtual reality in an occluded or closed headset affects even more fundamental aspects of how we are wired as human beings – creating panic and anxiety in some cases. 

When we are awake, a considerable amount of our brain activity is dedicated to providing and maintaining our health and well-being. This includes our brain constantly scanning our surroundings. When immersed in VR, these normal defensive and protective mechanisms we have as human beings are mostly bypassed due to the headset enclosure. For many people, this separation from the real world can induce panic or even extreme anxiety. 

The need for headset translucency and accommodation 

There are ways to mitigate both motion sickness and anxiety; yet the current generation of facebrick VR headsets cannot employ them. These products are very poorly designed and built. 

For instance, VR headsets should allow the user to control the level of translucency to the real world, rather than totally blocking off the eyes and ears. This is the only way to mitigate motion sickness and avert panic attacks. When people can adjust a headset to their personal comfort levels, they can connect to the real world as much as they need to feel safe. Humans have different comfort levels for full occlusion, making it necessary to provide this adjustability. 

For many people, the first few minutes of trying out VR can be interesting and fun. But wearing a headset for more than a few minutes is another story. This is when the poor optical design of most VR devices becomes obvious. The optics in the current facebrick headsets are not designed for extended use, so they inherently induce eyestrain and eye fatigue. 

The current VR optics do not emulate or replicate how we see in the real world. Most headsets use a single simple refractive optic that is incapable of producing a uniform, focused field. Nor can they address a fundamental part of our vision process known as accommodation, in which the eye adjusts and is able to focus, maintaining a sharp image at various changing distances. 

Adequate translucency and accommodation are crucial for any legitimate optical system to enable longer viewing times, such as watching a whole VR movie without inducing eyestrain. 

Brightness is another critical issue for eye comfort. VR devices that use cellphones need to have their brightness reduced because cellphones are designed to be viewed from 12 to 18 inches away. Yet new cellphone VR devices are placed just two inches away from the eyes, with two large magnifying lenses to concentrate light into the eyes. This is not a safe product because far too much light is going into the eye. Safety should always be the first design priority. 

Other physiological concerns with current VR devices involve their size and weight. Their bulk requires some kind of strap to be worn behind and even on top of the head. Most people find this bulkiness to be uncomfortable, so they can typically only wear such headsets for a short amount of time. 

VR devices need to be built much smaller and lighter than most current designs, with a more sophisticated optic. In addition to these hardware challenges, poor content creation is another reason why the experience of viewing VR with a facebrick is both fun and unpleasant at the same time. Poorly created content can cause motion sickness in seconds, and it can also induce serious trauma, perhaps even permanent neurological damage, according to UCLA neurological scientist Mayank Mehta

VR success depends on health and safety protections 

VR is unlike any other communication technology ever invented. When the VR content is properly constructed, virtual reality has no limits as to what can be accomplished because it communicates with all three human brains simultaneously – our primitive survival brain, our subconscious dreaming brain and our conscious waking brain. 

Given this profound impact on human awareness, VR content creation should rigorously adhere to specific rules and methods to protect human health and safety. If such basic protections are not provided, VR can produce a lackluster experience – or much, much worse. 

The key to the successful adoption of VR is providing a great user experience. Otherwise the rush into virtual reality will backfire by scaring off large numbers of users who become fearful of motion sickness, eyestrain, discomfort, panic attacks or anxiety. 

For VR to succeed, the hardware and software must reflect a human-centric design by paying extreme attention to how humans interact with visual and audio sensory stimulation. 

Doug Magyari, the CEO of IMMY Inc., is an inventor and serial entrepreneur. Magyari has spent the past 20 years conducting augmented reality (AR) training simulations for US military agencies and aerospace firms. He has also worked over the past decade to develop proprietary AR and VR headsets that incorporate a new set of comfort and safety features. Magyari is the owner of 13 patents and numerous patents pending. Please contact him at







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