Brain scans get closer to understanding how virtual reality triggers ‘cybersickness’

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Move over seasickness, “cybersickness” may soon take over as the dominant motion illness with virtual reality becoming more and more popular. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, estimates show that anywhere from 30 to 80 percent of users experience disorientation or nausea while immersing themselves in a virtual reality setting. Now, researchers from the University of Maryland have figured out a way to measure and better understand this newly emerging phenomenon.

The key to this work is electroencephalography (EEG) technology. UMD researchers were able to observe the brain activity of VR users in real time as they experienced a virtual world via EEGs. The hope is that those recordings will help develop prevention and treatment options for cybersickness.

While cybersickness shares obvious similarities with motion sickness, it’s quite different in the sense that sufferers aren’t actually moving. They’re only experiencing the perception of movement within a virtual environment. There are already a number of theories out there as to why cybersickness occurs, but with scientists doing few studies on it, it’s hard to find any real answers.

Brain activity’s link to VR discomfort

This study’s authors are among the first to try using EEG technology to measure and better understand cybersickness. For reference, EEGs record neural activity via sensors placed on one’s head. Sure enough, this idea helped them establish a correlation between certain brain activity patterns and the onset of cybersickness.

“Establishing a strong correlation between cybersickness and EEG-measured brain activity is the first step toward interactively characterizing and mitigating cybersickness, and improving the VR experience for all,” study co-author Amitabh Varshney, a professor of computer science and dean of UMD’s College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences, comments in a university release.

Up until now, the very limited amount of research on cybersickness had solely asked participants to self-report cybersickness symptoms after the fact. The problem with that approach is that it only collects qualitative data, essentially making it impossible to connect specific symptoms with VR developments. Moreover, what one person experiences while “cybersick” may differ greatly from what another feels. Confounding matters is the possibility that more than just the VR is contributing to an individual’s personal symptoms.

This research is the first to collect data as users were experiencing virtual reality. This was accomplished by fitting each subject with an EEG device and immersing them in a short one minute-long VR fly-through of a futuristic spaceport. The experience wasn’t always smooth; researchers added a few quick drops and abrupt turns to recreate the feel of flying. While all that was happening, each subject had access to a joystick allowing them to report in real time any feelings of discomfort or nausea.

The study is published in the journal Virtual Reality.

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John Anderer

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