Exploring the mysteries of motion sickness

KITE’s PerceptionLab is driving critical research in motion sickness and virtual reality

When most people imagine a research lab, they think of a large space with complicated medical machinery. The KITE Research Institute’s PerceptionLab is entirely different – a small room, painted black, with screens and equipment along the edges of the space.

Its small size is almost surprising for a lab currently running five studies at once, and has hosted roughly 20 others — but here, physical space is not the point. The world is entirely virtual. 

Sitting on a small chair with a virtual reality (VR) headset on, the lab disappears: you’re gently floating through infinite outer space, small meteoroids passing by. In the simulation, you can reach out your hand and see an avatar of your own arm – touching the meteoroid, it softly bursts. 

But then the simulation changes. Now you are rotating while moving, spinning through space, the distant stars and passing meteoroids are swirling. You feel uncomfortable. Queasy. 

Dr. Behrang Keshavarz, senior scientist at KITE, stops the simulation. Many people will experience visually induced motion sickness (VIMS) during this experience — one of the oddities of his job, he jokes, is to make people feel sick. 

Dr. Keshavarz designed PerceptionLab to research human perception and performance in virtual environments, and especially the common but mysterious phenomenon of motion sickness. His work uses monitors, videos and virtual reality to make participants feel immersed in what they can see, and he studies their physiological reactions. 

He had the small room painted matte black so the walls wouldn’t reflect light from the screens and monitors – a distraction from intense visual experiences such as a first-person video of a bumpy bike ride through cobblestone streets. 

More than a decade ago, Dr. Keshavarz’s goal was to cure motion sickness completely, but that aim is further away than he originally thought. Now he works to reduce it, to predict it, and the most elusive goal of all — to understand it.

“The more I learned about it, the more I noticed how complicated it is, how complex it is, how multifaceted it is, and how many different variables are at play — and that I found really interesting,” Dr. Keshavarz says. “It grew. It grew much more than we expected it to be at the beginning.”

Understanding the ‘little black box’ 

Even after decades of research, motion sickness is stubbornly mysterious. It’s estimated that one in three people experience it, while symptoms can vary widely from person to person. It can also come on in so many ways – boating, driving and even riding a camel. Some people have experienced phone sickness, which happens from walking and watching something on a mobile device at the same time. 

Theories around the phenomenon include eye movements (too many is directly linked to VIMS), and an evolutionary hypothesis, where the disorientation may be perceived by the brain as having ingested a poison – prompting nausea or vomiting so the body may expel it. 

The sensory conflict theory, however, is arguably the most commonly cited: our eyes make us believe we are moving, turning or spinning through a virtual environment, but our inner ear (how we perceive balance) and our muscles and joints tell us otherwise, since we are merely sitting in place. This conflict confuses the body. 

But these research-supported explanations remain just theories.

“We don’t even exactly know what is happening, why you get it,” Dr. Keshavarz says. “There are different theories out there, for sure. But none of the theories can basically explain every outcome.”

Dr. Keshavarz’s research has found ways to reduce VIMS by manipulating the physical environment: making participants feel more comfortable using fans to increase air flow, or playing music that participants had picked. Pleasant scents have also been shown to help. 

Having an avatar in a virtual environment — seeing your own virtual “hands” and “feet” within the program — also reduces the phenomenon. Some of these interventions lowered discomfort by almost half.

As it stands today, preventing and eliminating motion sickness completely is not possible, but it may be in the future, Dr. Keshavarz says. While this research will help anyone struggling with motion sickness, it’s critical for the industries and technologies likely to see explosive growth in the coming decade: simulator training, VR programs, autonomous cars, and entertainment.

In 2022, there were an estimated 171,000,000 VR users around the world, says Dr. Keshavarz. In some VR studies, he adds, motion sickness affected up to 60 to 70 per cent of participants. Consumers feeling unwell while using these devices isn’t good for the business.

Understanding susceptibility and predicting who will experience VIMS is yet another complicated unknown for future research to explore. Each individual piece contributes to the whole puzzle.

“[Motion sickness] is like a little black box, if you will,” Dr. Keshavarz says, describing his studies and research into that black box in order to better understand why and how VIMS happens. “Trying to understand that black box is the goal.”

This Is KITE is a storytelling series that aims to excite and inspire audiences as well showcase the Institute’s people, discoveries and impressive range of research. The campaign will feature monthly stories and videos that chronicle key projects under KITE’s three pillars of research: Prevention, Restoration of Function, and Independent Living/Community Integration.