Understanding What Causes Cybersickness And How To Prevent It

words Al Woods

Cybersickness

The information age has transformed the way we work and play. Intensely engaging virtual worlds allow us to continue our professional careers from home, play immersive video games with other people around the world, and shop online for items that would be otherwise hard to find locally.

Even social media has become part of our daily lives-we chat with friends and family near and far in real-time via social networking sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Unfortunately, it’s not all fun and games. The immersive nature of these online worlds can be taxing our bodies and mind, sometimes to the point where it becomes not only uncomfortable but also painful. This is called cybersickness.

What Is Cybersickness

Cybersickness can come in different forms such as motion sickness postural instability or unsteadiness with visual displays, and sensory conflict. The root cause for all three is essentially the same:  a mismatch between sensory inputs from visual, vestibular, and proprioceptive systems. Without proper blue light blocking glasses and other preventive measures, cybersickness can have a serious impact on a person’s life. It may also lead to more severe conditions such as permanent visual damage, chronic migraines, anxiety/panic attacks, and depression.

What Causes Cybersickness?

What are some common examples of these visual and vestibular conflicts? Two major ones that seem to crop up time and time again are low frame rates (framerate) and wide FOV displays.

Frame Rate vs Refresh Rate

Generally speaking, the higher the framerate, the better it is for preventing cybersickness because more frames per second mean smoother transitions when moving your head around in virtual reality. Unfortunately, high framerates require fast graphics cards with capable GPUs so this is not always feasible depending on your system specs. If you have a powerful PC but don’t wish to spend the money on a new GPU, you can still reduce cybersickness through the use of reprojection methods such as timewarp/sync.

Wide Field of View (FOV) Displays

When it comes to displays with a wide FOV, two major factors affect our eyes: crosstalk and the screendoor effect. Crosstalk occurs when a pixel that’s meant to be turned on is accidentally turned off, or vice versa due to interference from the adjacent pixels. This results in blurry images and ghosting especially at high refresh rates when turning your head quickly. Ways to reduce crosstalk include timing the strobing of pixels to within a refresh cycle, increasing the intensity of pixel colors, and angle tuning the display by adjusting the screen curvature.

The Screendoor effect occurs when you see distinct rings around each pixel on an LCD due to the space between them. This is generally more noticeable at high resolutions where there are more pixels packed into a smaller area. The simple solution is to lower the resolution but this is not always feasible depending on the content being viewed.

The Brain And Cybersickness

Our brains use several senses (such as sight, sound, motion, and touch) to establish our location in space. When there is a conflicting input from two or more senses simultaneously, such as hearing music while watching the movie, the brain will try to resolve discrepancies and determine what is real and what is not—resulting in an uncomfortable feeling.

The side effects of cybersickness range from disorientation and lightheadedness, to nausea and headaches. It can also result in balance issues that might eventually cause us to fall over in the virtual world or even in real life (e.g., stumbling when walking). The severity of such symptoms will depend on different factors such as how intense the virtual environment is if we are moving around, whether we are sitting or standing, and if there are other people in the same virtual environment with us, among many others.

How To Prevent Cybersickness?

When playing video games for hours on end, always take breaks every 20 minutes or so even if you do not necessarily feel tired—especially when using motion devices such as steering wheels, flight sticks, etc., which tend to cause more severe symptoms of cybersickness. Make sure your room is properly ventilated and that there’s enough lighting. You might even want to consider using anti-glare displays (e.g., matte monitors) if the light is too strong for you. Investing in a good pair of blue light blocking eyewear also helps a lot in reducing cybersickness especially if you’re using VR headsets/displays.

If you are already experiencing cybersickness, one of the most effective preventive measures against it is keeping your eyes focused on distant objects rather than near ones—which tends to cause greater illusions of motion in our brain, thus resulting in disorientation more easily. It also helps to not look at moving/dynamic objects when playing video games or watching movies; instead, try looking down towards something that does not move-this can help reduce sensory conflict significantly. If possible, do not focus on dynamic things until after you have stopped playing/working.

Cybersickness

Take note that no matter how many preventive measures you take, cybersickness is inevitable sometimes. Try not to worry too much about it just be aware of your body condition and limit extreme game/movie sessions so you don’t hurt yourself. If the symptoms are too severe, stop playing or watching immediately and give your brain some time to recover before resuming again.

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