How game designers find ways around VR motion sickness

Motion sickness has long been the bane of virtual reality. It’s associated most strongly with first-person shooters and walking games, which create a stark mismatch between your real and virtual body. Move too fast in the game, and your stomach won’t respond favorably in the real world. Yet play a game where the movements of your virtual character match your own, and you might run into a wall or your coffee table. VR game developers know these boundaries all too well, and they’re now beginning to move beyond these limitations in unique and fascinating ways.

The results were out in full force at last week’s annual Oculus Connect developer conference. Oculus is on the brink of releasing its Touch motion controllers, which means designers building for its Rift headset are dealing with more and more realistic body motion in VR. Take, for example, Lone Echo, a new Rift exclusive which uses the physics-bending freedom of zero-gravity to overcome the hurdles of in-game motion.

Lone Echo developer Ready at Dawn relies on an ingenious method to replicate the feeling of floating in space — specifically, in a mining operation within a ring of Saturn. Instead of asking players to move around a confined physical space, Ready at Dawn chose to create a system of constant motion. After all, you’re never perfectly still in space unless you tether yourself down. In Lone Echo, players drift endlessly, moving between all manner of levers and bars and other objects. While adrift, you can steer with small bursts of air from your hands, activated by buttons on the Touch controller.

The sensation is disorienting at first, teetering on the edge of discomfort even with all VR’s recent advances in minimizing motion sickness. Yet once you’ve got your bearings, Lone Echo’s movement system feels natural. You stop worrying about the disconnect between your body and your brain, because the element of zero-gravity fills the gap. After a few minutes, the thought of motion sickness begins to fade away.
"When you just have parity with your head and your hands, moving around is really nauseating," Nathan Phail-Liff, Ready at Dawn’s art director, told me at Connect last week. "It was an inspiration for us looking at how astronauts move around the International Space Station. So it's a really aggressive movement model, but it's also really comfortable."

Moving around in virtual reality is not easy. To make it work — and make it work well — the headset requires quite a few strategically placed cameras. Even then, without the right sensors and a large enough space, you can’t really walk around inside a virtual environment as you can in the real world unless you’re confined to a small, boxy room. This is a problem for VR game developers, many of whom are trying to create complex experiences that let players take a more active role instead of just stand or sit passively as objects and scenes fly at them on-screen. And that’s before dealing with motion sickness.

Down the line, we might have advanced wireless VR headsets that let us wander through rooms big and small — perhaps even outside. Software will also create intricate virtual environments that overlay perfectly on top of the real world, or in some cases mix the realities into one. Oculus is working on developing such a headset, announced as a prototype last week codenamed Santa Cruz. Of course, the dream technology is still miles away in science fiction territory: a Matrix or Ready Player One-style system that would let you move your body in a simulation while laying perfectly still in the real world.

So while the hardware marches onward, VR developers are coming up with clever and innovative ways to help us move without forcing us to lift our feet off the ground. Lone Echo is an exceptional example, because it both solved an integral problem and did so in a way true to virtual reality, by letting players experience the impossible. But other game companies with more traditional first-person titles are rethinking the fundamentals of game design to help it accommodate modern VR.

One of those fundamental mechanisms is teleportation. Teleportation has been a neat special power in video games for decades — the upcoming stealth title Dishonored 2 lets you magically "blink" past enemies to avoid them. In VR, though, teleportation becomes more than just a trick. It’s a substitute for having to move either a controller’s joystick or your physical body.

Epic Games’ new Oculus shooting title Robo Recall has perhaps the most polished movement system of any recent VR game because it uses such a fluid, freewheeling teleportation system. Like other games using teleportation, instead of asking you to move via an analog stick or goofily wander around your living room with a headset on, the game lets you pick any portion of the environment to warp to.

This wouldn’t be exceptional if it weren’t so seamless. Many first-person VR games nowadays rely on some type of warping method to get players from one spot of the map to another. Robo Recall’s predecessor, a 2015 tech demo called Bullet Train, helped pioneer the system. The stealth game Budget Cuts, for HTC and Valve’s Vive headset, uses a popular mechanism borrowed from the iconic Portal series to let you rip oval-shaped holes in spacetime. Other games, like the VR version of Superhot, don’t involve locomotion at all, choosing instead to let the action come at you.

In Robo Recall, you’re given an unusually polished and complex teleport system. To indicate a location you’d like to warp to, press a controller stick and a blue line cascades across the map. Not only can you pick where you move, by twisting the stick, you can choose which direction you’ll be facing when you get there. It’s fast, and with a few minutes of practice, incredibly intuitive.

In Robo Recall, you’re given a set of firearms to dispatch armies of rebelling androids who come at you in huge numbers, similar to an old arcade shooter. It sounds rudimentary, but in VR it’s an exhilarating experience to fire at enemies with high precision and reload weapons by putting your hands to your hips. The experience is made even better by the ability to move around the map. That way, you can take advantage of the high ground in certain spots and even dispatch slow-moving boss enemies by quickly jumping back and forth around them.

Other Rift developers are using similar teleportation tricks, but with their own takes. Arktika.1, from Metro 2033 developer 4A Games, is another VR first-person shooter with a stronger narrative focus. To keep players on track and to aid them in firefights with enemies, 4A Games allows teleportation only between certain preordained locations.

"Wth free choice, players can potentially put themselves in a bad spot," says Jon Bloch, a senior producer at 4A. It’s true. In Robo Recall, a less experienced player could frantically teleport around the map without ensuring they’ll be facing a strategic direction. In Arktika.1’s gunfights, you can move closer to the action by teleporting to spots designated by the color yellow. If it’s too hectic there, you can retreat to a safer location designated by the color blue.

These methods are all ways of circumventing the fact that full-body movement in VR is still hard and expensive to achieve. The HTC Vive’s "room-scale" VR still requires a lot of workarounds, and systems that allow infinite walking, like the Virtuix Omni treadmill or The Void’s complex redirected walking system, are still incredibly niche.

Even so, games that get it right let players experience some of the freedom of modern video games in a way that only VR can allow — without having to risk their physical body in the real world.