Most people who spend significant time with virtual reality become familiar with the queasiness that VR experiences can leave you with long after you remove the headset. In my case, I can locate this feeling in a very precise spot in my stomach: a knotted, vaguely poisoned sensation that sometimes takes hours to wear off.
I’ve always been interested in how media use effects the body, but in my past work on ambient media it had been largely gentle and indirect types of influence—more of a nudge than a wrench to the gut. But in spending long hours in a headset for my recent book on VR, I found myself engaged in research where queasiness was literally the price of admission.
I gradually learned which movement settings and camera motions in a VR experience would trigger this nauseousness, if rarely in time to avoid them the first time around. Simultaneously, however, dealing with routine queasiness as part of my everyday media engagement made me wonder how this came to be considered par for the course. After all, casual dismissals of motion sickness can be found running throughout immersive media history. Motion sickness caused by consumer VR is often positioned as a temporary obstacle, a problem that will gradually evaporate as the technology continues to improve, or as individuals grow accustomed to the interface and develop their “VR legs” (even as major VR companies have struggled to render legs themselves).
But what if we understand motion sickness not as a lingering side effect, but as central to how media technologies like VR remake our relationship with the world? Perhaps the knotted feeling in my stomach is not just the opportunity cost of doing VR research today, but a clue to a longer history of how media-induced motion sickness came to be rendered socially acceptable.
The relationship between motion sickness and novel technologies has a long history. Paul Virilio famously noted how the invention of the ship also invented the shipwreck. Less considered is how seafaring also inaugurated our current era of techno-nausea: naus- being the Greek for ‘ship.’ Ever since, humans have continued inventing new technologies that simultaneously force us to struggle to keep the world from spinning.
Disability media studies scholar Elizabeth Ellcessor notes how media never simply “are” accessible or inaccessible for existing bodies. Rather, in many cases new media technologies create new kinds of impairments that did not previously exist. From this perspective, it isn’t that my stomach is simply ill suited to the forms of virtual movement offered in VR. Rather, VR and other forms of what we might call nauseogenic media are actively engaged in inventing new forms of bodily discomfort. Moving image media in particular tend to uncover new forms of image-induced motion sickness as they push towards bigger, more immersive, and more high-definition imagery than before.
A Brief History of Nausogenic Media
There are long-running debates over the precise mechanisms that trigger motion sickness within the human body, alongside a long legacy of funding put towards research trying to prevent it. But media-induced motion sickness is never simply a biological symptom, but also a social one: there is a cultural history to how it is received and discussed once it has surfaced; when it is taken seriously, and when it is dismissed.
Image-induced motion sickness goes by a lot of names. In Japan, where my research focuses, it is most frequently described as eizō yoi, something akin to ‘moving image inebriation’ (yoi can also refer to drunkenness or intoxication). In the context of 3D interfaces, this term becomes more specifically 3D yoi, or more recently, VR yoi.
In English, the earliest journalistic mentions I can find dub it “simulator sickness,” in reference to the first place it became an issue: flight simulator training devices used by the United States military. As each branch of the military began adopting simulator training, mainly for fighter jet pilots, simulator sickness quickly emerged as a new kind of liability. The concern here was less about the discomfort of individual soldiers, and more about putting them behind the controls of deadly and highly expensive equipment before the simulator sickness effects had fully worn off.
The Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard all instituted specific protocols for reporting time spent in a simulator, including how many hours post-simulator training someone must wait before getting in a non-simulated cockpit, whether a jet or a car to drive home. The Air Force, in contrast, had no such rule, and the official policy was to refuse to acknowledge simulator sickness even existed. As one Army flight simulator researcher put it in the late 1980s, “pilots do not like to talk about simulator sickness because it creates a perception of weakness” (Fisher, 1989). Here was an early example of what would be a long-running connection between motion sickness and a kind of rugged masculinity that refused to even acknowledge it, or at best saw it as something to overcome through gritted teeth.
Meanwhile, in the entertainment realm, for much of the twentieth century image-induced motion sickness remained a rather niche, rarely discussed if ever-present affliction. Across the decades a slight but steady trickle of newspaper articles report people getting sick at the movies. The problem does seem to get worse by the later part of the century, however, due to the increasing accessibility of amateur moving image media creation and playback technologies. This is when the production of image-induced motion sickness gets democratized. Handheld video recorders now allowed anyone to easily produce nausea-inducing shaky-cam footage, which became an aesthetic of its own in films like The Blair Witch Project (1999).
To give just one example, in 2006 a video shown on a big screen at a Catholic girls’ school gymnasium in Japan caused fifty students to fall ill, with thirteen taken to the hospital by ambulance after they became severely dizzy and nauseous. Investigations pointed to the footage: shaky handheld video of the school’s culture festival taken over the previous few days. But experts noted the screening conditions must also have played a role: the gymnasium windows had been blacked out, and the video was projected onto an especially large screen, four meters by five. A neurologist interviewed by the Asahi newspaper warns that “footage taken by amateurs can be expected to have camera shake, so it’s better not to view it in a dark room” (Asahi shimbun, 2006).
The arrival of 3D video games at the end of the century also introduced new forms of media-induced nauseousness, as the frequent swerving of the virtual camera could produce similar effects for predisposed players. Andrew Emery of the Guardian, for example, describes first experiencing game-based motion sickness on playing Doom in 1995 and suffering from it with many games ever since.
VR as a Nauseous Interface
This brings me back to virtual reality, where motion sickness is common enough to make it a more widely discussed problem. During the first ‘VR boom’ of the 1990s, early attempts at consumer headsets like Sega’s Virtual VR were quickly shelved for fear the device would “make kids sick.” Here the dark surroundings and big screen that contributed to the school gymnasium sickness was all but assured by placing the screen directly in front of the face and blocking out a user’s peripheral vision. At the same time, high latency rates and VR games’ invitation for people to swing their heads around lowered the nauseousness threshold that much further.
By the 2010s VR revival, a more sustained discussion finally emerged concerning who exactly was most afflicted by these headsets when it came to their nauseogenic effects. Media scholar danah boyd launched the debate with an opinion piece in Quartz simply titled “Is the Oculus Rift Sexist?,” noting how going back to the late twentieth century, VR tended to be engineered by men and based on their own average physical proportions. While women were also involved in VR engineering, boyd notes anecdotally how they were far more likely to have debilitating motion sickness when using the new devices. Subsequent research has identified a similarly gendered design bias across a wide range of consumer headsets.
Game comfort ratings (“comfortable” “moderate” etc.) as seen in Meta’s Quest store today provide some general guidance, and individual developers increasingly give a range of movement and vignetting options to try to accommodate different motion tolerances. On the whole, however, the VR industry remains remarkably cavalier when it comes to innovating new forms of impairment. Meta’s recently revised 6 core values retains their long-running imperative to “Move Fast”—a principle of sprinting into new unregulated markets, at speeds that might easily make many of those along for the ride motion sick—or worse.
In recent years, funding for motion sickness research has come to be centered on the production of immersive media systems for self-driving cars. From a media industry perspective, the self-driving car promises to open up a new scene of dedicated media consumption for the human passengers now free to ignore the world outside. Systems like Holoride promise to let backseat passengers—and eventually everyone in the car—use virtual reality content while the vehicle is in motion. To prevent the otherwise likely motion sickness, Holoride VR content is timed to the movement of the vehicle itself: when the car makes a turn, the environment inside the VR world will rotate accordingly. Holoride calls these adaptive VR experiences “elastic content.”
This scene of being enclosed in a virtual environment, while being simultaneously enclosed in a moving vehicle, brings our history of motion sickness full circle. Much like the way noise-cancelling headphones use inverse waveforms to mask the rumble of the airline cabin, here vehicular nausea and media-induced motion sickness are called on to cancel each other out. In the process, however, passengers become even more dependent on these technologies for their very equilibrium. In the quest for a calmer stomach, the nauseous interface comes to serve as both the poison and the cure.
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