by Steve Raymond          
WE'RE at a party and someone is complaining about his wrists again. Someone else starts stressing about monitor-induced headaches, and suddenly, the endless conversation about computer-related ailments is replaying itself one more time. We're all joking uneasily about a possible future where we become the first generation of cyber-cripples. Little do I know I'm going to have my first taste of Simulation Sickness the very next day.
Virtual Warnings

Someone at work had received a demo model of the Forte VFX-1 head-mounted display. It's one of a number of currently available HMDs, sold mostly in the PC market and used for playing adapted versions of "Doom" games. I spent about 45 minutes "inside," euphorically flailing around the room while my senses informed me I was executing a graceful ballet of ultraviolence versus an endless army of the undead. The trouble started when I took off the helmet.

My euphoria faded fast. The colors in the room seemed way off, and I broke out in a cold sweat. The room started spinning. I sat down and tried to shut my eyes, but when I turned my head, I experienced a persistent and disturbing 3-D afterimage of the gamescape. I opened my eyes again, and felt a rush of nausea. I sat in that chair for about twenty minutes, until I could stand up. Three hours later, I still felt shaky. Something about the experience had deeply fucked up my soul.

Like any good scientist, I encouraged my friends to play with the headset so I could observe their reactions. They all got sick to varying degrees and quickly lost interest. Wellington sat with his head between his knees, moaning. Todd went outside and walked into a street lamp. Jamie got a headache, and Sean just sat around very quietly, sweating and smoking lots of cigarettes. It sent Ed into a metaphysical tailspin—he just stood there saying, "Whoa!" every few minutes, until he could muster up an entire sentence: "The devil is only a word until you shake hands with him." I sympathized with him. The actual experience of virtual reality (VR) sickness had dredged up a lot of my own unrecognized fears about the hazards of living in a world of technologically mediated experiences.

Simulation sickness is closely related to motion sickness. The human sensorium is a delicate system that has evolved to provide us with precise feedback on our reflexive abilities, which we use to orient ourselves to the world around us. Motion sickness has been with us ever since people first tried adapting to new methods of transportation, such as animals and ships, extending our speed and mobility beyond the natural parameters for which our senses had been calibrated.

Symptoms common to both simulation sickness and motion sickness include: nausea, vomiting, pallor, perspiration, damp palms and upper lips, dizziness, and frequent swallowing. Simulation sickness also has an extended set of symptoms called the "sopite syndrome": unresponsiveness, eye strain, drowsiness, lack of initiative, headaches, fatigue, irritability, apathy and general spaciness. Motion sickness happens when the vestibular system (your inner ear) gets fed up with too much abrupt motion or acceleration.

One possible reason why people vomit from both forms of sickness is the "poison theory"—any blurring of your senses prompted by interference with your vestibular system is interpreted by the body as an early warning sign of poisoning. Your body is literally hard-wired by evolution to press its own eject button—a trait we share with other animals whose senses are highly tuned, like birds. The weird thing about Simulation Sickness is that your vestibular system isn't being physically stimulated. A synthetic experience is providing your senses with motion feeds which makes you feel sick. (A "synthetic experience" is one that uses technology to modify, record, or transmits some aspect of human sensory experience.)

Symptoms of Simulation Sickness can also happen outside of virtual environments. Our mental buffers are strained by overexposure to technologies which allow us to have "synthetic experiences" regardless of where we physically are. Extended TV viewing, headphones, marathon telephone sessions, the computer workspace, internet, cel-phones, and video games are all examples of such technologies.

Even though our mental buffers can dilate to handle a wide bandwidth of sensory information, these tools are so much a part of our lifestyles that we're rarely aware of how much time we spend using them. Much of the physical illness we feel is probably from stress incurred by the constant strain between our sensory receptivity (input) and perceptual adaptivity (processing). Sleep works to minimize the daily effects of sensory overstimulation, but these stresses can still have a cumulative effect. Physical problems like RSIs (Repetitive Stress Injuries), back problems, and eyestrain could possibly be the psychosomatic offspring of a larger, scarier condition: PSI's (Psychorepetitive Stress Injuries).

Psychorepetithon is a reflexive, continual action provoked by a compelling environment. Guitar players, phone freaks, and computer workers all share the same sensation of concentrating on a foreground activity while they actively operate a device. Like gambling and other habits, it's often difficult for people to stop—they just have to send one more email, make one more call, drive another mile, or play one more game.

Psychorepetitive stress conditions aren't going away, so it's our individual responsibility to scrutinize our own behavior. The only real solutions are to take frequent breaks, seek out extra quiet time, and pay more attention to what our bodies are trying to tell us. In the meantime, I'll be using the VR helmet as a paperweight.   </end>

RSI sites list

VR Vestibular Project

A Study Of Simulator Sickness Induced By Exposure To Immersive Environments

Simulator Sickness in VR Environments (Brain Damage)

The VR Pricetag; Nausea, Dizziness, and Disorientation

illustrations by jorja
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