I was recently given a demo of the upcoming VR game Adrift by developer Adam Orth, and I wanted to be upfront about one aspect of the experience when I spoke with him: The game made me feel a bit ill.
Saying this was nearly once a slap in the face to a virtual reality developer. It used to mean that the game wasn't running well, or the screen door effect inherent in the earlier development kit screens was distracting. Low resolution and bad design can also make you feel ill. None of these things were an issue with Adrift; the game was running on a very recent version of the Oculus Rift, with a rock-solid framerate.
The problem was that I was playing an astronaut floating in out space, and that is an experience that will make one sick, no matter how good the technology. I wasn't sick because of the "virtual," aspect of the experience, in other words, but the "reality" part.
I asked Orth how they made sure the game's technology wasn't making people sick, while the lurching feeling that naturally comes from floating in space remained.
"We try to take the tech part out of the equation entirely by having our game run as smooth and as fast as possible," he explained. "I think it’s ridiculous for people to expect to go on a roller coaster and not have that effect on you physically. That’s what VR is."
There are other VR games and demos that will never make you feel anything physical, but those are by their very nature much more sedate. Adrift feels very real, and very immediate. You're in a hostile environment trying to find enough air to survive, and floating around in zero gravity.
"There are VR experiences where you just sit in one place and that’s cool, but we didn’t want to do that," Orth explained. "We wanted to have a compelling, thrilling, almost cinematic experience that you control by interacting with it. If you were actually floating in space and looking down on Earth, it would physically effect you. From a design perspective we just kind of assume that’s going to happen."
I wasn't sick because of the "virtual," aspect of the experience, in other words, but the "reality" part
I had the same feeling the last time I was playing Eve: Valkyrie, the space dogfighting game from CCP. The game ran without dips in the framerate, and the latest version of the Oculus Rift hardware removed the artificial, window-like feeling that can come from earlier versions of the hardware. But I still felt a bit ill, not because of a limitation of the technology, but due to the fact I was screaming through space in three dimensions while whipping my head around looking for my targets. If you were in a fighter in space doing these things, you would likely feel it in your gut.
There are some VR enthusiasts who dislike any talk about people feeling sick from games, as they see it as negative publicity for the technology. But I'm not here to evangelize or sell Facebook stock, I'm here to say that if you do crazy things in a technology designed to mimic reality, you're going to feel a bit sick from time to time. Just like Orth's roller coaster analogy, it can even be part of the fun.
Now that so many best practices are known in VR, even though there is much experimentation left, and we know the minimum requirements needed in terms of framerates and latency to be "comfortable," we need to start differentiating the feeling of being ill that comes from faulty technology and bad design, and the lurching in your gut that comes from the very cool act of doing all sorts of gnarly shit in an environment that feels real.
Virtual reality has gotten much better in the past few years, but the sickness is going to remain: It's simply the price of feeling like you're there.