Does Space Sickness Correlate with VR Sickness?

In keeping with my preferred late-adopter approach to life, I finally joined Team Roomba. Sure enough, giving iRobot ten years to work out the kinks before I buy means that I’m really liking how well it works. I shoulda bought one of these things ten years ago! Only I would’ve wanted the one that just came out this year…

Anyway, like a lot of The Quarantined, it’s been a big gadget-buying season here at Rambles Manor. So in addition to finally buying a robot that sucks, I also bought a video game that makes you throw up. And as the new owner of an Oculus Quest, I can tell you in all frankness that VR and a Roomba, much like alcohol and barbiturates, are a dangerous combination. Do not mix them, particularly after you’ve had a beer. But I digress.

I was never really itching to buy a VR rig, but my wife was interested in virtual 3d travel for her birthday, so that pushed me over the edge. One reason I hadn’t bought one already is that I’m prone to the kind of motion-sickness that gives VR a bad name. I didn’t want to spend several hundred dollars just to paint the carpet a new color. Even a new Roomba couldn’t clean that mess.

But I’ve been very impressed with the Quest, even though I’ve been doing the VR equivalent of going on the kiddie rides at low speed. My favorite thing so far surprised me: little looping 3D animations built with a Facebook VR tool called Quill. They’re charming. My new hero is Goro Fujita, master of the Quillustration. But I’ve also been skating a little closer to the edge, trying motion-based games and reading about VR sickness. And it got me thinking about space sickness, or as the astronauts prefer to call it, Space Adaptation Syndrome (insert three-letter acronym here).

One of the surprising things about space sickness is that it doesn’t correlate with typical motion sickness. That is to say, people who never get air sick, even though they fly high-performance jets for a living (that is, your typical astronaut), still have a 50-50 chance of getting space sick. It’s unpredictable, and nobody knows why. As you can imagine, it’s a real drag for your typical hot-shot space jock to be so humbled on their first flight. This is not the kind of thing that typically gets reported to the press corps, but it happens a lot.

So VR sickness made me wonder about space sickness. Could the kind of vestibular disruption you experience with VR actually be somehow similar to what you experience in zero-g? If you have strong “VR legs,” are you likely to adapt well to space station shuffleboard? After all, in both cases what you see corresponds only weakly to what your middle ear is telling you, at least according to years of earthbound experience. And it’s clear that both of these are very different from flying a jet at high speed. So that’s my hypothesis, and I want to know if there’s any evidence for it: VR legs and space legs are a matched set. If it’s true, it would give us an useful way to predict who’ll get sick in space, and also perhaps help them prepare for the ups and downs, or rather not-ups and not-downs, of floating lunch. Which makes me wonder… if there’s no up in space, you can’t really upchuck. So do you just chuck?

Incidentally, in my research I learned that way back in 1985 Senator Jake Garn was taken along as a VIP guest astronaut on Space Shuttle mission STS-51. Sounds like a fun gig, except that his space sickness during that mission was so profound, so comprehensive and incapacitating, that it set the bar for all future astronauts. “One garn” is now (unofficially) considered at NASA to be the absolute worst possible case of Space Adaptation Syndrome. Most people only experience no more than 0.1 garns for a few days.

So perhaps if a milli-Helen is the amount of beauty required to launch a single ship, then maybe a centigarn is the amount of space sickness required to blow a single chunk.