Curing seasickness: could virtual reality be the future?

Will Bruton reports New Zealand-based company may have found a cure for seasickness using virtual reality to provide relief to patients

A real cure for sea sickness has long been expected, as the debilitating problem has followed sailors for centuries. Charles Darwin gave a warning to any of his readers who were tempted to romanticize sailing, declaring in The Beagle’s Journey: insignificant that it can be cured within a week. “

But even though Darwin’s theory of evolution became a well-established science, what causes seasickness remains fierce. In addition, nothing invented so far has managed to function universally as an effective cure for seasickness and drug-based treatments are known for their side effects.

Thus, even professional sailors learn to live with the debilitating condition rather than overcome it once and for all. In the Volvo Ocean Race there have been multiple cases of more than half of a professional crew being ill at the same time.

New Zealand start-up See-Level promises to help sailors overcome the symptoms of seasickness by combining motion sensor technology and virtual reality.

Founder Dudley Jackson, originally from the Isle of Wight, started the business after being forced to cancel his own circumnavigation plans. “I had bought the boat, I prepared for several years and I was excited to cross the oceans,” he explains. But overcome by the seasickness as soon as he was ashore, Dudley returned disappointed to New Zealand, turning to his computer background to find a solution.

The headphones are fully immersive and have proven to be effective so far. Photo: Will Bruton

Virtual reality had an awkward start in the consumer electronics market when it first became available to computer gamers about five years ago, and YouTube videos show users who are interested in it for the first time. crashing into the furniture as they had lost all sense of spatial awareness outside the headphones.

Even state-of-the-art VR games can be confusing and, for many people, can cause motion sickness. But it is this powerful feeling of being elsewhere that Dudley hopes to take advantage of, temporarily extracting the wearer from his real environment.

Jackson was introduced to virtual reality games by his son. “I was amazed at how quickly I suffered from motion sickness,” he recalls. But the question arose: “If virtual reality can make me sick, could it eliminate seasickness so quickly? And the answer is: yes.”

Virtual reality headsets provide 360 ​​° immersion in a virtual environment that, combined with sound, effectively seals the real world. If you haven’t used any before, the experience is a little weird and awesome. Look up, down or behind you and the world you are immersed in is continuous.

The user’s visualization within the virtual reality headsets as See-Level recreates a stable horizon.

See-Level’s patented offering is twofold. First, it offers relief to the sick as soon as they begin to feel unwell. Second, it is designed to train users prone to seasickness, which the company calls INT, or Incremental Neurological Training.

If the system is a commercial success on larger vessels over the next few years, it is likely to drop in price significantly. A small boat version of the system, called the “Companion Edition”, is already available, which comes in a waterproof armored case for easy stowage, but around £ 850 is not cheap.

The ‘Yacht Edition’, aimed at commercial sailing operations, comprises two main components: a processing box kept flat inside the boat and a virtual reality headset (several can be connected to the system at once). The headphones connect wirelessly to the processor unit, which requires power from the boat to operate.

Virtual horizon

For the treatment of seasickness, See-Level recommends that the headphones be used only sitting or lying down. Once the unit is placed over the user’s head, they are seated on a virtual beach overlooking a virtual sea horizon, while a voiceover speaks throughout the program.

The first phase, called “Signal Matching,” provides relief to most people suffering from seasickness within 15 minutes. Once the patient feels better, they can continue for another 45 minutes with INT.

See-Level creates a virtual environment on land, but uses wireless links to sensors that sit firmly in the real world, using real-time live data on the playing field, rolling and getting up from the ship. This data is used to gradually reintroduce the actual movement of the ship over time.

Initially, the image the user sees is flat. After 15 minutes, the second stage of the simulation gradually reintroduces the actual movement of the yacht over a period of 45 minutes, so that when the headphones come off, the actual movement of the boat has been progressively normalized for the user.

The sensors feed the See-Level system with data on the height, lift and rotation of the yacht. Photo: Will Bruton

Dudley Jackson explains that users are advised to put on their headphones as soon as they feel a little unwell for maximum effectiveness. “When we did our first tests in the South Ocean on an expedition ship for two weeks with 50 passengers, they got the kit on the high seas when food was served. After a brief stint in the virtual world, they were able to eat a full meal ”.

Subsequent tests have recently been carried out with whale watching tour operators and the New Zealand port company Littleton is installing the system aboard its commercial pilot vessels.

See-Level INT training mode is the most developing part of the product and is aimed at getting users used to unusual movements while on the ground. It is something that can be useful for those who are only susceptible to dizziness after an extended period on the ground.

Although the system has not yet been tested independently, the company’s own results state that the device was effective, on average, after seven minutes of use. Most of the tests have been carried out on trips from the Cook Strait of New Zealand to Antarctica aboard a small expedition cruise ship, with 85% of those using headphones going report a reduction in symptoms.

A real cure for sea sickness?

Professor Tom Stoffregen is director of gauge perception-action technology at the University of Minnesota and has conducted numerous experiments investigating seasickness. He points out that many of the most common beliefs about what makes sailors feel bad are a confusing mix of theories.

“The real test of any technology that claims to overcome seasickness, or any other relief product, is whether it’s more effective than just sitting and closing your eyes; it’s the most crucial sensory perception here to have in account “.

Professor Tom Stoffregen has conducted experiments on motion sickness. Photo: University of Minnesota

In a simple demonstration, Stoffregen quickly moves a vertical flat surface toward a person standing on a small platform, ceasing to have contact with them. Most people take a step back off the platform, unable to stay balanced. This experiment demonstrates the poor postural stability of humans; something Stoffregen believes makes us susceptible to seasickness.

In a larger study, Stoffregen measured how subjects held themselves naturally when on the ground, collecting data on how much they moved unconsciously while simply trying to stand still.

Those who were less static on land proved to be more susceptible to nausea and disease in the days following at sea; suggesting that some of us are simply inherently less balanced and therefore more likely to suffer at sea.

Professor Stoffregen suggests that since we do not yet fully understand sea sickness, it is best to work with the strongest evidence we have to help us navigate. “Actually, it’s the rise and fall of the boat (rather than launching or rolling) that has the biggest impact on making people feel bad.

“We know that every move you make at sea is completely different from the land, so make sure it helps because you will immediately have to compensate less.

“We also know that seasickness almost always disappears in less than 96 hours. So, by doing the right things early, sitting on the deck with a view of the horizon for a few hours instead of minutes, you will help your body go through the difficult acclimatization process more quickly.

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