Study: Oculus Rift virtual reality headset induces motion sickness and is sexist in its effects

New research has found that the Oculus Rift, a high-end virtual reality headset, puts people at significant risk of motion sickness.

The study of 72 college students, published in the journal Experimental Brain Research, found the use of the head-mounted virtual reality display system resulted in a “remarkably high” incidence of motion sickness.

Eight of 36 participants who played Balancer Rift for at least 15 minutes reported motion sickness. The game involves rolling a virtual marble through a maze. Twenty of 36 participants who played the first-person horror game Affected for at least 15 minutes reported motion sickness. Women were more likely than men to report motion sickness, but the severity of symptoms did not differ between the sexes. The findings from the study also suggest that motion sickness from virtual reality is related to increased body sway.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Thomas A. Stoffregen of the University of Minnesota. Read his responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Stoffregen: I have been studying motion sickness for more than 25 years. I’m interested in all aspects of the malady. But, lately I’ve been especially interested in motion sickness related to “interactive technologies”. As interactive devices increasingly pervade the lives of ordinary people, motion sickness related to these technologies becomes more and more common. The problem is getting worse, not better. In the last few years, I have also begun to focus on sex differences in motion sickness. Pretty much always and everywhere, women are more susceptible than men.

This effect is well-documented, but there has never been a satisfactory explanation. Too, little attention has been paid to the sex effect in the context of interactive technologies. As these become “essential” aspects of ordinary culture, any sex difference in motion sickness can create de facto discrimination. The Oculus Rift was extremely famous; widely hyped, widely admired, heavily promoted as the future of interactive technology. To the extent that this is true, any sex differences in motion sickness relating to the Oculus Rift could have real societal consequences. That is why we did the study.

What should the average person take away from your study?

1. Interactive technologies make people sick.
2. The problem is getting worse, not better.
3. Women are at greater risk than men.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

One caveat is that there has not been much research. Ours is the first study examining sex differences with “head-mounted displays”. In our study, we used two different games. Not surprisingly, one game was more nauseogenic than the other. But one game showed a significant sex difference, while the other did not. So, it’s not simply the technology (the hardware) it’s also the content (the games, apps, software). We know almost nothing about that interaction, and we need a lot of research to figure it out.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

For over a year, the Oculus Rift received intense hype. Its arrival on the market was hotly anticipated, but repeatedly delayed. Finally, the company publicly acknowledged that the principal reason for the delays was the fact that it made too many people sick. Now, the product is on the market, but the buzz is gone; the device is no longer in the media. I haven’t seen sales figures, but I doubt they are impressive. It may be that people do not want to pay $600 for a device that makes them sick.

The study, “The virtual reality head-mounted display Oculus Rift induces motion sickness and is sexist in its effects,” was also co-authored by Justin Munafo and Meg Diedrick. The study was published online December 3, 2016.