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A Study on How Humans Adapt to Virtual Reality-Induced Cybersickness

Although virtual reality has been available for years, the advancement of higher-resolution visuals, more accurate monitoring of the user’s motions, and more affordable, sleek headsets have opened up new applications for immersive technology outside gaming and military training.

Taylor Doty, a Ph.D. student of psychology and human computer interaction, wears a VR headset at Iowa State, 2022. Image Credit: Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University.

Virtual reality has been utilized in medicine to assist burn victims in controlling their pain and train surgeons for complex procedures. In education, it has made it possible for students to visit renowned museums, historic landmarks, and even the human brain.

According to Jonathan Kelly, a professor of psychology and human-computer interaction at Iowa State University, the most significant obstacle to VR becoming widely used is cybersickness. According to prior studies, more than half of new headset users encounter the phenomenon after 10 minutes of being subjected to VR.

Numerous symptoms, including nausea, headaches, eye fatigue, dizziness, and a persistent sensation of movement, are similar to other types of motion sickness. According to Kelly, they are all brought on by conflicting sensory information.

When someone reads a book in a moving car, their eyes recognize a stationary environment while parts of the inner ear and brain that are involved in balance and spatial orientation pick up accelerations, turns, and bumps.

Jonathan Kelly, Professor, Psychology and Human Computer Interaction, Iowa State University

In a virtual environment, the opposite is accurate. Sitting on a coach, a person’s visual system experiences the exhilaration of a roller coaster. The dissonance can make someone want to vomit even if they do not experience a stomach drop or whiplash.

Kelly added, “We know people can adapt to sea sickness through repeated exposures. After several days on a boat, they will start to feel better. My research team and I want to figure out to what extent people can adapt to cybersickness and whether their adaptation in one VR experience can carry over to others.

Initial findings from a study involving 150 undergraduate students show that symptoms can be reduced with just three 20-minute VR sessions spread out over a week. However, more women and people susceptible to motion sickness have difficulty adjusting to cybersickness and diverse VR environments.

Dinosaurs and Shadows

Last year, Taylor Doty, a PhD candidate in psychology and human computer interaction, Associate Professor Stephen Gilbert, and Professor Michael Dorneich, two professors in the department of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering, chose participants who had no prior experience with VR technology.

Participants spent up to 20 minutes playing the same VR game, Jurassic World Aftermath, during their first three sessions at Kelly’s lab.

We wanted the game to be fun enough that the participants would only stop playing from cybersickness, not boredom,” Kelly stated.

Every four minutes, the participants were asked to score their cybersickness symptoms on a 10-point scale while avoiding dinosaurs and working to solve secrets. The researchers recorded the length of time the subjects played during each session along with this “sickness rating.”

The participants played Shadow Point, a narrative-driven VR puzzle game, under identical circumstances on their fourth and final visit to the lab.

Kelly stated that both games in the study were classified by their developers as “moderately intense” for cybersickness. To increase the likelihood that participants would become ill, the researchers also eliminated additional comfort features from the games (such as restricting peripheral vision with the headsets to lessen visual stimulation).

Initial Results

Half of the participants reported feeling too unwell to play the entire game in the first session. By the third session, just 25% of the participants remained.

Kelly stated, “This, along with the finding that sickness ratings on day three were 20% lower than on day one, shows that people adapt when playing the same game repeatedly.

In addition, individuals who had already played Jurassic World three times scored 20% less sick on the second game, Shadow Point, than a control group who had never used virtual reality before. This, according to Kelly, shows how some adaptations to one VR environment can be applied to another.

However, preliminary findings from the study indicate that specific individuals experience more acute cybersickness and find it difficult to adjust to VR. Throughout the four sessions, women were 50% more likely to get sick than men.

Kelly added, “We also found a correlation where people who reported frequent motion sickness from cars and boats also experienced greater cybersickness from VR. It is possible people with more frequent motion sickness didn’t adapt as easily because they felt sicker with VR.

Sessions that are shorter and with less intense VR games could provide a kinder, more efficient method.

The research team will conduct a future study to examine this and the gender disparity in cybersickness. According to Kelly, their long-term objective is to create a training procedure that would be included with a VR headset to assist new users in adjusting to virtual environments.

The LAS Seed Grants for Social Sciences, which offer competitive financing to advance academic research in the social sciences and facilitate the compilation of preliminary data in support of future extramural grant submissions, provided the funds for the study carried out in 2021.


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