If you’re hungry for a taste of this new-fangled virtual reality, Google Cardboard is by far the cheapest (and easiest) way to get in on the action. Sure, it’s not as high quality as something like the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, or even the mobile-focused Samsung Gear VR or Google Daydream, but it’s still a nice experience for the little investment involved.
And best of all, it works with almost any Android phone.
First things first, you’ll need a Google Cardboard unit. The cool thing about Cardboard is that it’s basically an entire platform—an open design allows pretty much any manufacturer who wants to get in on the action to build and sell their own Cardboard product (many of which aren’t actually made of cardboard). To check out all the options and get one for yourself, check out Google’s Get Cardboard page. You’ll find options ranging from as little as $5 to $70 or more. It all depends on what features you’re looking for.
In this tutorial, I’ll be using a basic Google Cardboard unit: a limited edition Kylo Ren Cardboard headset from the Star Wars: The Force Awakens launch. Sorry guys, those are unfortunately discontinued. Either way, the process is the same on all versions of Cardboard, so you should be able…
Tech evangelists predicted that 2016 would be “the year of virtual reality.” And in some ways they were right. Several virtual reality headsets finally hit the commercial market, and millions of people bought one. But as people begin immersing themselves in new realities, a growing number of worrisome reports have surfaced: VR systems can make some users sick.
Scientists are just beginning to confirm that these new headsets do indeed cause a form of motion sickness dubbed VR sickness. Headset makers and software developers have worked hard to combat it, but people are still getting sick. Many in the industry fear this will be a major obstacle to mass adoption of virtual reality.
“A lot of VR, people today cannot tolerate,” says Kay Stanney, a human factors engineer with a focus on VR at Design Interactive in Orlando, Fla. Search for “VR sickness” on Twitter, she says, and you’ll see that people are getting sick every day.
Around 25 to 40 percent of people suffer from motion sickness depending on the mode of transport, scientists have estimated, and more women are susceptible than men.
Count me among those women. I’m highly prone to motion sickness. Cars, planes and boats can all make me feel woozy. It can take me a day or more to fully shake the nausea, headache and drowsiness. Certain that virtual reality would also make me sick, I’ve purposefully avoided strapping on a headset. (Until this assignment came along.)
Women who got sick
playing a VR horror game
Men who got sick playing the game
So far, avoiding VR hasn’t been much of a loss for me. A lot of the VR industry is focused on video games, vying for a chunk of an estimated $100 billion market. And most of the early adopters who are willing to pay for one of the new premium headsets — $400 for Sony’s PlayStation VR or $800 for an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive — are probably serious gamers or technophiles. I don’t fit either category.
But, avoidance promises to become harder as VR moves beyond games. The technology has already begun creeping into other fields. Car companies, including Audi, General Motors Co.and used-car seller Vroom, are building VR showrooms where you can check out cars as if you were actually on the lot. Architects are using VR to walk clients through buildings that don’t yet exist. Schools and learning labs are taking students on virtual field trips to both contemporary and historical sites.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sees virtual reality as the next big social platform. In 2014, Facebook bought Oculus VR, maker of the Rift headset, for around $2 billion. “This is really a new communication platform,” Zuckerberg wrote in the Oculus announcement. “Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.” New VR sites where people can socialize or play games together in virtual spaces, like AltspaceVR and Rec Room, are springing up. And some tech luminaries see a future in which VR is integrated into many more aspects of our daily lives, from movies and entertainment to work and health care.
Nobody knows if the broader public will embrace virtual reality. Sales of the expensive high-end headsets have been underwhelming — the three premium systems combined sold an estimated 1.5 million headsets in 2016. But sales of cheaper mobile headsets were more impressive. For less than $100, Samsung Gear VR, Google Daydream View, Google Cardboard and others are powered by your mobile phone. But with smaller screens and less computer power, they are far less capable than the Rift or the Vive. Still, they are selling. In January, Samsung reported that it had sold 5 million of the $99 Gear VR headset since its release in November 2015.
But VR may never really catch on if it makes people sick. And while VR companies and developers are confident that they’ll find solutions, many motion sickness experts are pessimistic. “My hunch is that [the solutions] are extremely limited,” says Steven Rauch, director of the Vestibular Division at Massachusetts Eye and Ear in Boston.
In some ways, the very premise of virtual reality makes it an ideal vehicle for motion sickness.
Cue conflict or instability
Motion sickness has probably been with us as long as we’ve had boats. References to seasickness date back to Greek mythology; the word nausea is derived from the Greek naus, meaning ship. J.A. Irwin introduced the term motion sickness in the scientific literature in 1881. Since then, an extensive body of research has accumulated.
The most widely accepted theory to emerge is that motion sickness is brought on by a mismatch between two or more of the senses that help you keep your balance. For example, when you’re below deck on a ship at sea, your eyes see a stationary room. But your vestibular system — the fluid-filled canals and specialized membranes in your inner ear — senses the motion of the ship as it rolls over waves. “You’re getting conflicting information on different sensory channels into the balance system,” Rauch says. “That is believed to be the primary cause of motion sickness.”
In virtual reality, the mismatch is there as well, says visual neuroscientist Bas Rokers of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. But the sensory cues are reversed: Your eyes see that you are moving through the virtual world — in a virtual car or a virtual spaceship, or strolling down a virtual path — but your vestibular system knows you’re not actually moving. “That gives you a cue conflict,” he says.
While most motion sickness experts think sensory mismatch is to blame, some disagree. Kinesiologist Thomas Stoffregen of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, who’s been studying motion sickness for 25 years, thinks instability is the culprit. On a ship, the rolling motion puts you off balance, and that makes you sick, he says. “Motion sickness situations are ones in which the control of your body is challenged somehow. If you don’t rise to that challenge, then the contents of your stomach may rise.”
This idea, known as the postural instability theory, can be applied to VR as well, Stoffregen says. If your eyes convince your brain that you’re in the virtual world, your body will respond to it instead of the real world you are physically in, which can throw your balance off. Imagine sitting in a chair in the real world while riding in a car in the virtual world. As the car approaches a turn, you’ll want to lean into it, which could land you on the floor. The more convincing the virtual world is, the more likely you are to link the control of your body to what you’re seeing, Stoffregen says. “And in a virtual car, that is a mistake.”
While the postural instability theory is outside the scientific mainstream, it offers an explanation for another mystery of motion sickness: why more women suffer than men.
Stoffregen and colleagues have shown repeatedly that it’s possible to predict who is likely to get motion sick in various circumstances by measuring postural sway — the small, subconscious movements people make to stay balanced while standing still. By analyzing several aspects of sway, including the distance, direction and timing of the movements, the researchers have found that people who are susceptible to motion sickness sway differently than those who aren’t. And postural sway differs measurably between men and women. The difference, Stoffregen says, can be attributed to physical differences between the sexes, such as height and center of balance.
FEELING WOOZYStoffregen’s research suggests women are also more prone to VR sickness than men. In a study published in December in Experimental Brain Research, Stoffregen and colleagues measured the postural sway of 72 college students before they were asked to play one of two VR games for 15 minutes using an Oculus Rift DK2. The first game made two of 18 men and six of 18 women feel…