Battling Motion Sickness in Virtual Reality

Screen Shot 2015-08-12 at 6.54.00 PM

As many of my followers know, I’m working on a virtual reality game– the world’s first VRMMORPG codenamed Project Portara. I’m in charge of all the things you will see and hear in the game, which includes level design.

I upgraded to Mac OS X El Capitan so I could get the Xcode 7 Beta. This allowed me to finally play-test Project Portara in real VR and with the Steelseries Stratus bluetooth controller. As amazing as this was, it became very clear that motion sickness is going to be an obstacle in the user experience. I strapped on my Google Cardboard to my family and close friends, and watched them stumble about while watching them in-game on my Mac. Most were able to play for a maximum of 5-10 minutes before getting sick.

My little brother is a frequent gamer, and he was the only other person besides me who could play indefinitely without getting sick– it’s interesting how it seems like people could build up a tolerance for screens– is it cause of effect? Are gamers people who are capable of staring at screens for hours, or does gaming make people capable of staring at screens? I’ll run some tests at a later date, but for now, I’ve got to treat this symptom with proper UI and level design.

I found that putting a stationary object in the middle of the screen (such as a weapon or UI) helps players by giving them a point of reference while looking around in 3D space. I’ve read that you can superimpose a “nose” in the middle of the screen. We added a sword to test. This definitely helped, but we’re going to have to add more for sure.

Now here came the tricky part– I added a set of islands (pictured above) to our game, but it honestly made me incredibly nauseous two days in a row. After playing the game for 10 minutes the first night, I got a migraine and quit work for the night very early. Thinking I only had a head cold, I tried again the next day And experienced the same results despite being in good health.

I realized that this area that I had spent three days designing would now have to be scrapped. I think that the island area of my world had three things that triggered headaches and motion sickness, and they are all things that I’m going to avoid in the future while doing level design for virtual reality entertainment.

1. Reflections. I added water with real-time reflections, and I think that for whatever reason, it messes with people’s eyes while wearing VR goggles. I’m curious to see if it’s just for Google Cardboard, or if people will experience the same troubles with the Oculous Rift.

2. Too much variance in terrain height. I added a lot of flat ground (to make it look good for the top-down view), and I think that constantly adjusting your eyesight to look around walls and across flat lands caused a little too much eyestrain. I’ll try to make terrain changes a little more gradual in the future.

3. Too close. Walls, pillars and hills were too close to the player all the time. You’d walk across a cluster of tiny islands, but when you turned a corner you’d be confronted with a wall. Constantly having to adjust your eyes from looking at distant objects, just to have a wall appear right in front of you actually became an issue when playing with a VR headset, so I’ll have to keep that in mind when I redesign this whole area.

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