Falling hardware costs have put virtual reality tantalizingly close to revolutionizing everything from how gamers battle aliens to how companies train employees, but the technology faces a troubling challenge that leaves some users sick to their stomachs.

For some virtual-reality users, all it takes is a few seconds to come down with a case of cybersickness. The ailment has many of the same symptoms as motion sickness, including nausea, disorientation and dizziness.

Sabarish Babu gestures toward the screen while Larry Hodges looks on and a student demonstrates a Clemson University virtual reality project.

Sabarish Babu, right, gestures toward the screen while Larry Hodges looks on and a student demonstrates a Clemson University virtual reality project.

Sabarish Babu, an associate professor in the School of Computing, said he hopes to learn more about what causes cybersickness and what can be done to cure it with the help of nearly $50,000 in seed funding from the Brooks Sports Science Institute.

The future of a highly promising technology will be on the line when he begins experiments this summer that involve a rowing simulator. Unless researchers can find innovative solutions, cybersickness will be a major impediment to the adoption of virtual reality, especially programs involving traveling through a virtual scene, Babu said.

“It’s a big issue, and it’s not quite well understood,” he said. “We want to know more about the fundamental factors that causes cybersickness. There are many different theories.”

Babu is particularly intrigued by the sensory-motor conflict theory.

In a nutshell, it means that the movement your eyes see in the headset is different from what your stationary body feels. For example, you could be watching yourself racing around a track in a car, even though the rest of your body knows it’s sitting in a chair that is staying put.

Babu hopes to learn more about how the conflict factors into cybersickness by putting participants on a rowing machine and having them wear a virtual reality headset that shows them on the water. A motion tracking system will keep careful track of their movements as they row.

Researchers will vary the visual scene that participants see, sometimes having it match their real-world movements and sometimes having it go faster or slower.

Babu also plans to investigate whether cybersickness can be alleviated by enhancing a sense of proprioception, which is the connection between what is seen and the body’s movements and position in space. To learn more, Babu will introduce a virtual body, or self-avatar, that will move along with the physical body of the rower.

“In order to get at cybersickness, you would look at a multitude of factors,” Babu said. “One is how much head motion is occurring. Postural sway is one of the indicators of cybersickness. We can also ask them during the experiment how they feel. Are they experiencing a sense of nausea? Do they feel disoriented?”

Heart rate, blood pressure, respiration rate and electrodermal activity may also be measured, he said.

Babu said the team would like to investigate whether athletes are more susceptible to cybersickness than non-athletes. They also plan to research whether motor cues that result from body movement factor into cybersickness.

One of the challenges researchers face is figuring out why virtual-reality users are still getting cybersick, even though the quality is vastly improved over the technology’s last boom in the 1990s, Babu said.

Latency, for example, has gotten much better, he said. Latency refers to the gap between the body’s movement and the reaction of the virtual reality display. The gap is down to a matter of milliseconds.

Another issue is frame-rate, or how often the image is refreshed in the headset. It’s been increased from 30-50 hertz to 70-80 hertz, which is high enough to go unnoticed. Virtual reality scenes are also more detailed and realistic than they were in the past.

The equipment Babu will use underscores how much the technology cost has dropped in recent years. Babu said he expects all the equipment he needs will run about $4,000, but it would have been 10 times that as little as five years ago.

The research is one of 13 projects across the university that received $202,000 in seed funding through the institute.

Eileen Kraemer, the C. Tycho Howle Director of the School of Computing, congratulated Babu on the idea and the grant.

“This is well-deserved,” she said. “Dr. Babu has one of the nation’s best known research labs for investigating human factors in virtual reality. The research we are doing is an innovative way to learn more about solving the problem of cybersickness and could be just the beginning of a more in-depth study.”

Kraemer, a co-principal investigator on the grant, will supervise the usability, general human-computer aspects of the project. Christopher C. Pagano, a Clemson psychology professor, is also a co-principal investigator and will head research in ecological psychology, perception-action coordination, human factors design and human perception capabilities.