In reality

UNR professors study virtual reality sickness

Dr. Paul MacNeilage, Dr. Eelke Folmer and Dr. Lars Strother have been studying VR sickness in women at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Dr. Paul MacNeilage, Dr. Eelke Folmer and Dr. Lars Strother have been studying VR sickness in women at the University of Nevada, Reno.


A team of researchers at UNR believes virtual reality (VR) technology, much like the smartphone and the laptop before it, is poised to change the way that humans interact with computers. With applications ranging from gaming to training-simulations and medical therapy, to name a few, VR technology is a growing field of interdisciplinary study within the university’s STEM departments. In one of their new classes, however, Dr. Eelke Folmer and Dr. Paul MacNeilage noticed that accessing VR technology might not be a level playing field.

“We had several girls in the class come to us and say, ‘Oh man, I’m getting motion sick so much, do I really have to do this assignment?'” said Folmer, professor and chair of UNR’s computer sciences department. “So there was some evidence there that women might get more motion sick—but, of course, more studies need to be done.”

After creating a class on understanding and developing VR interfaces in the spring of 2017, Folmer and MacNeilage, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology’s Cognitive Brain Sciences Program, realized a noticeable number of female students suffered from motion sickness while using VR devices—usually a visor-like headset with a screen that encompasses the wearer’s entire field of view. Some also work by positioning a cellphone screen in a similar manner.

“It’s been reported often that there are gender differences in susceptibility to simulator sickness, or cyber sickness is another term for it,” said MacNeilage. “There’s various theories out there; it’s a common theory, like, ‘Males are more macho. We don’t want to admit when we’re getting sick.’ But more and more we think that that’s not the case.”

Folmer knew from previous research that motion sickness is still one of the biggest barriers to widespread VR adoption, and MacNeilage’s work on the physiological components of the brain—called the vestibular system—behind the phenomenon meant they were in a position to address the problem. They quickly reached out to colleague Dr. Lars Strother, assistant professor of psychology, and put together a formal study in the fall of last year.

“I have some expertise in sex differences in the brain, specifically with visual processing,” said Strother. “I’m kind of coming from the visual-only standpoint. I mean, I know a bit about the vestibular stuff, but [MacNeilage] is the expert. Between the two of us, we’ve got the visual and vestibular systems covered, and with respect to the sex differences in particular.”

The vestibular system is a set of tiny organs within the inner ear that influence a person’s perception of moving through space, as well as balance. It’s believed that a disconnect between what the vision tells the brain to expect and what the vestibular system actually feels could be the root-cause of motion sickness.

After receiving grants from both Google and Mozilla to fund their efforts, the three researchers set out to test 32 subjects on their reactions when the field of view within a VR device was narrowed.

“The idea is that perception of motion kind of happens mostly in the periphery, and so if you block that, then it’s less likely there will be some kind of visual-vestibular conflict,” said Folmer.

As women generally rely on a wider field of vision than men while navigating, the team posited that narrowing the field of view would adversely affect female users more than male ones.

While the official results have yet to be published, Folmer said the study concluded that, actually, neither females nor males were found to be more obviously affected by narrowing the field of view—and that doing so helped both groups feel less sick.

The researchers nonetheless believe the results are valuable in understanding the processes at play, but the success of the study, and the departments’ current VR program, comes from its interdisciplinary nature.

“It’s a collaboration between engineering, psychology and neuroscience,” said Strother. “This is a fantastic example of it, and, I think, the first example of it at UNR. So regardless of how it turns out—whether it validates something or not—it doesn’t really matter. It’s demonstrating feasibility and progress.”

Psychology students and computer science students primarily take the class and are paired together for final projects in developing a VR app. The marriage of technological understanding and neuroscience theory is one of the goals of the class, the professors said.

“There’s a very nice fit there in terms of kind of the human side and the technology side,” said MacNeilage. “That way, we could kind of create greater understanding among computer science students of the human aspects of it, and vice-versa.”

The collaborative nature of the program also serves to broaden opportunities for women, who have historically been underrepresented in STEM in general and computer sciences, specifically, though they’re well-represented in neuroscience—at least at UNR.

“I do think it was kind of a unique situation where we were seeing maybe more females coming in and trying computer science technology and kind of running into these problems,” said Folmer. “If this was a VR course that was solely taught to computer science students, then maybe we wouldn’t have seen it.”

Increasing women’s access to VR and other areas of science and engineering is a priority that all three men would like to have for their departments, and they hope identifying accessibility issues will not only encourage female participation in the sciences, but require it in order to find solutions.

“I wish we had more females, certainly in my field,” said Folmer. “This is probably not the barrier that prevents women from participating in STEM, but it is a very small but significant one. So far as I know, it’s the only accessibility barrier there is, so we need to slay it.”

But while mechanical barriers can present interesting challenges for scientists, factors like professional stereotyping, sexual harassment and a certain “brogrammer” culture that might keep women away from STEM could be harder to combat.

“Engineers can slay a technical barrier, and a social barrier—that’s much harder,” said Folmer. “Changing people’s opinions about something is much harder.” Ω