I’ve been excited by VR since the 1990s, but my real VR journey didn’t begin until I got the Oculus Rift in 2016. I was unbelievably amped about what would be possible with immersive gaming.
My initial experiences with the Rift were interesting, but ultimately disappointing. I didn’t get much sense of immersion using an Xbox controller for my inputs. I put down the headset after a few weeks.
When the Touch controllers came out later that year, I purchased them on day one. VR experiences were still very nascent, but I started to have moments that blew my mind. Superhot, Bullet Train, and Wilson’s Heart are a few that made an impression. All of these games used a version of locomotion called ‘teleport’. Where you move location by pointing physically at a new location or automatically progressing after completing an action. It is often paired with a very fast fade to black which resembles a blink. The purpose of this type of movement is user comfort.
I initially thought ‘teleport’ mechanics were a clever way to move around in virtual space, since any game I had tried to move around using a ‘glide’ mechanic made me extremely sick quickly. I quickly assumed all games in VR that require movement would need to use ‘teleport’ because of my own experience. From that point forward I always avoided games that did not have a teleport locomotion setting.
A few years later I kept hearing the term ‘VR legs’, but at first, I didn’t understand what it meant. I soon found out that ‘VR legs’ describes the experience of getting over the nausea caused by smooth locomotion and letting the brain become comfortable with smooth locomotion in VR.
I became interested in going through this process and attempted to use smooth locomotion settings in games, to no avail. I remember one specific game of Population One where I had to lay down on the floor of my room and relax for 30 minutes afterward. I was sweating profusely and completely exhausted.
It turns out, the mind sometimes tricks itself into thinking you are poisoned when you visually experience smooth locomotion, but it doesn’t connect to what your inner ear is feeling in the physical world. Your brain responds by telling your body ‘prepare to be sick so you can throw up that poison.’
I did some research and found some tips for getting VR legs and overcoming the body’s confusion, as I really wanted to get the most out of VR and deep down inside I assumed glide locomotion would potentially provide me with richer experiences. The tips that worked for me were as follows:
- Start with very short sessions (<20 minutes at a time)
- Stop playing if you feel ill and suck on a ginger candy to quickly settle your stomach
- Wear a nausea band on your wrist while playing
- Tell yourself you are not poisoned and that you are playing a game
My main technique was to go into VRChat and flip smooth locomotion on for 10 minutes at a time, if I felt bad, I’d turn it off. After a day or two of doing this, I started to be able to handle longer periods of movement. After a few more days I felt good most of the time.
The real defining moment for me was when I started playing Onward. Onward seems to be the least nauseating game that uses smooth locomotion. I’ve been trying figure out why exactly it is different from other games, here are my suspicions:
- Movement in Onward is physically slower than many VR games, it appears to be more like the speed I can actually move as a human, rather than a speed that is good for video game action
- Onward encourages you to use your body to turn, rather than snap based turning, this helps me stay aware of my real body in the physical world
- Many of Onward’s maps are outdoors or in more open spaces, locomotion effects seem more pronounced in tighter corridors
Once I had become accustomed to smooth movement, it unlocked many experiences for me I would have never previously tried. I can’t say I truly love it as a mechanic and it does occasionally still give me a slightly ill feeling, but it works fairly well for me now that I have adapted and makes many games more fun. I am going to replay Half Life: Alyx with continuous locomotion very soon.
I don’t think I would expect all people to put this amount of effort into getting comfortable in this way, but the benefits are high if you are interested in VR gaming. Games like Beat Saber or Pistol Whip that have little or very controlled movement are ultimately far more accessible, but to me, lack some of the immersion I feel with the ability to control my movement through virtual space.