Why VR motion sickness affects women more: Ongoing research reveals answers

Iowa State researchers in psychology and engineering found women experience cyber sickness with virtual reality headsets more often than men.

Their ongoing work, supported by a new $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, explores why this difference exists and options to help individuals adapt [1]. Psychology professor Jonathan Kelly studies human-computer interaction, spatial cognition and virtual reality [2].

He says gender discrepancies in cyber sickness may not seem that important when it’s related to video games and other forms of entertainment. It’s still a problem, and when VR gets to the point where it’s a more significant part of job training or classroom education it’s even more critical to ensure people can access this technology. If not, many people will get left out, and there could be a backlash, according to Kelly.

Like motion sickness, cyber sickness can occur when there’s a mismatch between visual and body motions. Symptoms, including nausea, dizziness, headaches and eye fatigue, usually resolve quickly after removing the headset. But in severe cases, they sometimes last for hours.

With ISU professor Michael Dorneich and associate professor Stephen Gilbert in industrial and manufacturing systems engineering, Kelly and his PhD student, Taylor Doty, recently co-authored two related papers for the IEEE Virtual Reality Conference [3]. The first paper provides an overview of existing research on gender and cyber sickness, including their findings [4].

As part of a more extensive study on adaptation to cyber sickness, the ISU researchers recruited 150 participants. The participants played a VR game for up to 20 minutes with a headset [5]. The participants were new to VR and could stop if they felt too sick to continue. The researchers found women ended the game early twice as often as men and reported a sickness intensity that was 40% higher.

The paper also helps clarify why previous studies, many of which came from engineering or computer science, show different results. Many older studies that found no difference in cyber sickness between men and women had limited sample sizes or a significant gender imbalance.

According to Kelly, if the effect is slight or individual differences are large, you may need 200 participants to identify statistically significant differences. “I think this methodological expertise is something we in psychology can provide. It also highlights the value of interdisciplinary collaboration to tackle complex problems like cyber sickness.”

For the second paper, the researchers explored whether the distance between an individual’s pupils could help explain the gender difference in cyber sickness [6]. The researchers found women participants on average, had smaller distances between their pupils than men, but it did not predict whether they would get cybersick during the game. 

What seemed to matter more was whether they had previous experience with motion sickness or screen sickness (e.g., feeling sick in movie theaters while playing a video game.) According to Kelly, women reported experiencing more motion and screen-based conditions than men. This increased susceptibility is part of why women experience more cyber sickness.

From the wading pool to the deep end

With the new NSF grant, the ISU researchers will continue to investigate the causes of cyber sickness and methods to help individuals have a positive experience with VR. “One of the things we’re doing now is comparing the settings of headsets and virtual environments to see which are most effective at reducing cyber sickness for first time users and whether some are better than others for certain individuals,” says Kelly [7].

This includes adding “blinders,” which reduce the users’ peripheral vision while they move through a space, and options to teleport from point A to B. Both reduce cyber sickness by reducing visual stimulation. The researchers will also study how these settings can be adjusted to help users adapt comfortably and quickly to VR. Kelly likens it to beginner swimming lessons in the zero-entry part of the pool rather than the deep end.

[1] https://news.las.iastate.edu/2023/04/18/jonathan-kelly-awarded-600000-grant-from-the-national-science-foundation-to-study-study-cybersickness-caused-by-virtual-reality/
[2] https://psychology.iastate.edu/directory/dr-jonathan-kelly/
[3] http://ieeevr.org/
[4] https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/10108854
[5] https://www.news.iastate.edu/news/2022/08/15/cybersickness
[6] https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/10108715
[7] https://www.news.iastate.edu/news/2023/05/02/cybersickness-women

Photograph: Dimaberlin/Envato
The information included in this article is for informational purposes only. The purpose of this webpage is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.