As the new wave of virtual reality headsets moves ever closer to consumer reality, the effects of “simulator sickness” on a significant portion of the population remain a concern. A group of researchers at Purdue University say they’ve found an easy way to mitigate this effect by adding a bit of reality that most VR simulations leave out: a virtual nose that’s constantly in the corners of your view.
Providing a fixed object that doesn’t shift as you move through a virtual world has been shown to help anchor many VR users, reducing the apparent difference between visual and sensorimotor stimuli that can lead to simulation sickness. That’s useful for VR experiences that can insert a virtual cockpit or vehicle frame around the user. However, a virtual nose has the potential to be much more generalizable to any VR experience that takes place from a first-person perspective.
The Purdue study divided 43 undergraduate volunteers into two groups. The first group went through two unmodified virtual reality demos on Oculus Rift development kits, while the other went through the same demos with the virtual nose placed where a real nose would appear for the view of the environment. The “nasum virtualis” group lasted an average of 94.2 seconds longer in a simulated walk in a Tuscan villa before falling ill and lasted an average of 2.2 seconds longer in a roller coaster simulation.
In addition to the objective “time-to-sickness” measurement, researchers also asked subjects to subjectively measure their level of physical stress after the demos. The virtual nose group reported 13 to 14 percent less discomfort on this metric, depending on which simulation was performed.
“It raises a lot of questions”
Purdue computer graphics Professor David Whittinghill, who led the study, tells Ars that the size of the effect and the disease initially reported varied widely between subjects. There were some users who showed no signs of nausea on either demos, and two subjects had to “brain” almost immediately due to illness. Although, despite the small sample size of mostly male students (only three volunteers were female), Whittinghill said the results “were not bad statistically. More is always better, but…it’s a really big effect.”
Surprisingly, Whittinghill said, none of the 20 subjects who went through the nose demos noticed it was there until they were told by researchers afterwards. Whittinghill theorized that this could be due to the “change blindness phenomenon” that causes our perceptual systems to filter out visual information that does not change over time. Because the virtual nose is projected so close to the face, and in the corner of peripheral vision, the visual signal from the nose hardly changes, even if your eye naturally wobbles and darts across the screen. Still, the reduced nausea results suggest there’s some value in having the nose there, even if it’s not consciously perceived.
Whittinghill said his presentation of preliminary results at the Game Developers Conference earlier this month caught the attention of Oculus CTO John Carmack, who shared a brief conversation with Whittinghill following his own VR talk. “He was intrigued … it hadn’t occurred to him and he thought maybe he’d give it a shot,” recalled Whittinghill.
After pushing for early publication of the first study, Whittinghill said that in the longer term, he would like to expand the study to see if the type of nose being simulated affects the results. That means adding support for noses of different shapes and shades, or even shooting subjects to mimic their own noses in a virtual environment.
“I wish we could say we’ve thought this through carefully, but… [we just] modeled a nose that looked like ours,” Whittinghill said of the research so far. “We’re just four white dudes, we’ve brought that ethnic bias to the table.”
Whittinghill said he’s also interested to see if the presence of other solid objects would have similar effects, or if a virtual nose is particularly effective at reducing simulator sickness. “Is it the presence of something in your visual system or does it have to be a nose? Does it have to be like your own nose?… There are a lot of fine details and it raises a lot of questions. I think we’ll have our hands full .”