During a recent trip to visit family in Vermont, I was fortunate enough to be able to try Gear VR—a highly-portable Oculus product with Samsung Galaxy smartphone integration. Taking advantage of this opportunity, I immediately wanted to try out a game.
Land’s End was my poison of choice, and I don’t regret it. Instantly, I was transported from my grandparent’s living room to a rocky shoreline. Spinning around in my chair in the analog world allowed me to look around the virtual space, and an inventive “look and travel” mechanic allowed me to move from area to area of the game, encouraging me to explore as I searched for the node that would take me to the next area. I played through the entire first chapter before relinquishing it to my mom so she could try it.
However, while I was watching my mom in the headset (this time as someone on the outside—which I’ll admit is wonderfully funny. In fact, my mom caught some choice footage of me with the headset on), I started to feel a familiar queasiness. I felt my stomach turn, noticed a familiar lump in the back of my throat as said stomach pondered whether that was worth throwing up over, and adjusted to the tight rubber band feeling around my head that I was going to have for at least the next hour.
This, unfortunately, is a familiar story for me and virtual reality headsets. I get in, I think they’re cool, I feel fine, and not too long after that, my stomach roils and the tension headache sets in.
That’s why I sigh wistfully—and with mild annoyance—whenever I see someone talking about VR being the first step to a post-screen future or catch a news report of yet another console coming up with an updated version of itself to incorporate VR capabilities. Put simply: I don’t like the idea that a platform that makes me sick is going to subsume everything else. “That’s cool,” I say, “but what you’re proposing means me throwing up for my recreational activity.”
It’s totally okay if people want to, but it’s not a demand we can make of everyone, and I would even go so far as to argue that until VR solves the issue with motion sickness, it will never really take off as a household commercial product.
While there are no definitive numbers on how many people experience motion sickness in VR or any huge predictors as to whether you will or won’t get sick, a quick Google search of “VR motion sickness” brings up a dozen articles and a Wikipedia entry. That’s only the first page. This is a huge issue. Granted, it’s one that people are working to address, but the “we’ll solve it later” approach many companies and researchers seem to be taking when talking about commercial VR is disconcerting.
I’m definitely not arguing that VR is bad—I think it’s wonderful. There’s something truly inspiring about a platform that myself, my mother, and my grandfather can all engage with. It encompasses possibilities for passive and active storytelling in a way that few other platforms do. I’m also not saying that motion sickness is a problem that is completely unfixable or is being ignored, because there are some really smart people working to address it.
What I’m uncomfortable with is conversations about the future that don’t put accessibility first. While not every platform or every piece of technology is likely to be 100% available to all users, huge problems like a population that can’t use your product without being sick cannot be a secondary concern. Discourses where new technologies completely replace current interfaces are great unless you are someone who isn’t able to participate.
I’m not a Luddite (I’m actually looking forward to the Singularity). I would also be remiss to go without saying that VR is even more accessible for some people than screen-based interfaces. Likewise, the landscape for VR content is being generated as we speak, with the best and brightest from tech looking for new angles to engage a truly universal audience.
That being said, whenever we get excited and start stampeding into the future, we almost always leave people behind. I’m writing this because I don’t want to see that happen to VR, because hindsight makes it a frontier that can be explored in a different, perhaps better way than its predecessors.
So, here’s where that leaves us: you can talk to me about VR being the future when what you’re proposing won’t mean me coming home after a day at work, sitting down to play my favorite game, and needing to pop a Dramamine.