There is a problem with the Metaverse. It is called "Visually Induced Motion Sickness" or "VR Sickness". For some people the experience of wearing a VR headset and living in a virtual world makes them sick. They feel disoriented, the have trouble focusing their eyes and they feel nauseous. I recent survey of 55 academic studies in this area showed 15.6% of participants found it intolerable. The sensation was so bad that they dropped out of whatever experiment was being conducted. Many more persevered but had symptoms.
Why does VR Sickness happen?
It appears for the same reason we experience regular motion sickness. People like me have real trouble on boats and cannot read whilst being driven. Our mind reacts to a disconnect in our sensory input. Our sight tells us that we are going downhill on a (virtual) roller coaster. Or sense of balance tells us that we are sitting still on a chair.
The nature of the virtual experience will impact on the scale of that disconnect. If we are playing virtual war games the impact is higher than watching a 360 degree movie. In one experiment 67% of the participants could not complete a 14 minute simulated roller coaster ride. At first the technology itself was thought to be the problem. Refresh rates have been improved. The headsets tuned more closely to head movements. The simulations themselves made more realistic. All have helped but not cured the problem. Particularly with long exposure people like me will feel sick.
What Does It Feel Like?
The US military have been creating simulators for a long time. It is a lot cheaper to train a fighter pilot or tank crew on a simulator. Simulator sickness was a problem. They developed a measurement tool. It was called the Simulator Sickness Questionnaire or SSQ. There are three measures within it. The first is “Nausea” or the sense of it. The second is “Oculomotor”. This is the difficulty in focusing eyes, eyestrain and blurred vision. The third is a measure of mental ”Disorientation”. Traditional motion sickness starts with a sensation of nausea. It progresses to oculomotor and then disorientation. VR Sickness starts with disorientation and ends with a sense of nausea.
The stimulus may be virtual but the effects are real. Those same symptoms can be detected physiologically. Stomach contractions, sweating, parlour, even eye blinking are all very real. The symptoms will persist for an hour and some times much longer. It seems that practice can help the symptoms, but can take up to ten repetitions. For many the Metaverse will have to very attractive to get them to sign up.
Will the Old Inherit the Metaverse?
There are not enough studies to be sure but this might be true. That recent analysis of 55 studies include only 4 with participants over 35 years of age. The review looked across all demographics to try to understand who was most sensitive to VR Sickness. It also analysed the SSQ scores across different types of simulation: games, movies etc. It looked at how much action there was within the simulation. There were 4 studies that had the lowest score. All four were the older age groups.
Why might that be happening? They suggest the increased sensory thresholds that come with age. Studies of the vestibular system shows that its thresholds indeed do increase. This is the part of our “balance” that senses the motion of the head and its spatial orientation. It keeps the head stable to maximize vision when we move our body. Beyond the age of 35 its sensitivity drops. It declines even more so beyond the age of 60. Clearly it could be less sensitive to the impact of virtual reality headsets.
Ageism on the Web
The older user may be able to cope with the headsets. Can they get through the implicit age bias in the web? The usage “digital divide” is closing. COVID actually helped and more older people are on line. But there is another divide. Do older people have the breadth of purpose? Do they do as many things? Is the web attracting them?
Is the Metaverse being designed with a 65 year old in mind? Are the development teams all under thirty and designing something for their own use? Why are there only four studies using older people to look at VR usage and sickness?
Is the data used representative? Big data is a wonderful concept. It provides real time activity data from millions of users, using millions of applications. Scale is not everything. Is it representative of the population? Does it have a representative sample of older users?
Can the older user even get on line? Do they have a smartphone to receive the security key? Fingerprints do wear out with age. Especially for people who have worked with their hands. Can they use the new smartphone fingerprint readers. Can they cope with the complexity? Can they even get past the CAPTCA. We all have to prove that we are not an “evil BOT”. Todays’ version requires identifying “highways” in a set of pictures. What do you do if you are visually challenged? What if your perception is slower than it used to be. What is the difference between a road and a highway?
Of course this is not just an issue for the Metaverse. It is as much an issue with online banking. Never mind perhaps we can all walk round to the bank. We might use the ATM or even talk to a teller. We might not. Since 2015, 5162 UK branches have closed. That is almost 50% of all branches. There are now 11 parliamentary constituencies without any bank branch. There is a further 37 with one branch of one bank serving the whole area. 12,000 “free to use” ATM’s have closed in the same period. Older people will have to go cashless. As long as they can get into their internet banking system! Will the Metaverse be designed with more branches?