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ISU researchers get a grant to examine if people who get cybersickness from virtual reality can adapt

A simulation of a virtual reality study at Iowa State University. ISU psychology and engineering researchers got a grant from the National Science Foundation to explore if people who get cybersickness from virtual reality can adapt over time.
Christopher Gannon
/
Iowa State University
A simulation of a virtual reality study at Iowa State University. ISU psychology and engineering researchers got a grant from the National Science Foundation to explore if people who get cybersickness from virtual reality can adapt over time.

Women who use virtual reality headsets tend to experience nausea and dizziness from exposure to the immersive computer-generated environment more often than men.

That’s the sum of the work from Iowa State University psychology and engineering researchers, who have received a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to further their research and examine adaptation to the technology.

Cybersickness is something ISU psychology professor Jonathan Kelly describes as akin to motion sickness. A person may feel symptoms such as nausea, dizziness or a headache.

But unlike motion sickness where a passenger is often in a moving vehicle or on an amusement park ride, in the case of cybersickness a person isn’t moving at all.

“The person is stationary, but they’re wearing this VR headset that shows them they’re moving through this visual world,” Kelly said. “There’s this sensory conflict.”

Cybersickness can affect more than half of VR users in just about 10 minutes of exposure. Using the National Science Foundation grant, the researchers will develop techniques to help people adapt to cybersickness and study if it’s possible for them to feel less sick over time. The ongoing research will involve 600-800 participants ages 18-25 from the ISU campus, Kelly said.

There are tools, Kelly said, that can help narrow peoples’ fields of vision while using virtual reality. They’re kind of like training wheels that gently expose someone to VR.

“And then we could kind of take off the training wheels, as it were, and say, ‘okay, now you’re free to explore VR and you’re not going to get sick,'” Kelly said. “That’s kind of the ultimate goal. I don’t know whether that’s really achievable.”

Virtual reality will have a big role to play in education, work and social life, Kelly said. So researchers want to make sure anyone can access it without feeling sick.

“If we can address some of the usability problems now,” Kelly said, “then it’ll pave the way for VR to be a bigger tool and have a bigger impact on society.”

This photo shows a simulation of ISU researchers' study on virtual reality cybersickness, gender differences and adaptation. “If we can address some of the usability problems now,” said ISU psychology professor Jonathan Kelly, “then it’ll pave the way for VR to be a bigger tool and have a bigger impact on society."
Christopher Gannon
/
Iowa State University
This photo shows a simulation of ISU researchers' study on virtual reality cybersickness, gender differences and adaptation. “If we can address some of the usability problems now,” said ISU psychology professor Jonathan Kelly, “then it’ll pave the way for VR to be a bigger tool and have a bigger impact on society."

Prior research from the team has found women tend to get sick more often than men while using virtual reality headsets. Kelly and the team have done about a dozen studies on cybersickness. Their biggest study had 180 participants.

The researchers brought people into a lab and had them put on a VR headset to play a VR game for up to 20 minutes. Over the course of the game, the researchers checked in on participants, asking them to rate how sick they feel on a scale from zero to 10. If the user felt too sick to continue playing the game, they were allowed to remove the headset early.

“In our case, we found that twice as many women as men ended [the game] early,” Kelly said.

The researchers have a “partial answer”, Kelly says, as to why women experience cybersickness more often than men. When they bring people into a lab for a VR study, researchers ask participants to fill out questionnaires. One part asks them about their history of motion sickness, such as how often they’ve experienced car sickness or seasickness.

They found women reported more experiences of motion sickness in their history than men did.

“A piece of it can be explained by a gender difference in their history of motion sickness,” Kelly said. “But a bigger chunk of it is yet to be explained.”

Another possible explanation for the gender difference is that VR headsets fit men and women differently. Men, on average, have larger heads than women and the pupils in their eyes are spaced farther apart from each other than women’s pupils.

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.