This Virtual Nose Is the Latest Solution to Virtual Reality's Sickness Problem

Before virtual reality can succeed, it needs to stop making us want to barf.

Mar 25 2015, 9:29pm

​Is virtual reality the future of entertainment? Is it a bullshit idea by soft-skinned white dudes with a lot of money? Who knows! But before any of those questions can be answered, virtual reality needs to stop making people using it want to hurl.

One novel solution proposed by researchers at Purdue University could be a virtual reality nose in the middle of your field of vision in virtual reality, right where it would be in meatspace.

Virtual reality sickness is a well-documented phenomenon. Oculus Rift, the company that arguably started the most recent wave of the virtual reality craze, has even addressed the issue, suggesting a few complex engineering solutions for developers as well as some simple ones, like don't overdo it with the action movie-style camera shake effects. Medical devices for stroke survivors have even been tried to solve this issue.

Enter the VR schnoz. The idea was developed by David Whittinghill, an assistant professor of computer graphics technology at Purdue and a team of graduate students. It was an intuitive choice based on anecdotal experience with the technology—the team noticed that static objects like cockpits in virtual reality minimized sickness. Thus, a nose was added, because it's a static object that sits on your face all the time.

According to a university statement—a paper has yet to be published describing their work, although they presented their study earlier in March at the 2015 Game Developers Conference—the team inserted the nose into a series of demos and let 41 participants try it. In one demo, a leisurely tour through a Tuscan villa, subjects played for an extra 94.2 seconds, on average, with the nose. In a demo of a roller coaster, participants lasted an average of 2.2 seconds longer with the nose than without.

"The roller coaster demo is short, but it's very intense at times, spinning upside down, jumping across chasms, plunging fully vertical, so people can't do it very long under the best of circumstances," Whittinghill said in the statement. "We had a reliable increase of 2 seconds, and it was a very clear trend. For the Tuscany demo it takes more time, but eventually you start getting queasy, and 94 seconds is a huge improvement."

The sickness problem has real implications for companies trying their damnedest to push a working product to market before the competition—and there's plenty of that. Oculus Rift CEO John Carmack said as much himself at the Game Developers Conference in March. "People like the demo, they take it home, and they start throwing up," he said. "The fear is if a really bad VR product comes out, it could send the industry back to the '90s."

Whether virtual reality will actually catch on or not will likely hinge in part on whether or not early adopters end up tossing their cookies. Could a VR nose actually help? The answer to that question will likely require more research, but there's no doubt that industry players are trying their best to sniff out a solution to virtual reality's sickness problem.