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The truth about VR and vomit

The truth about VR and vomit

In 2015, John Carmack, the Doom (1993) developer and Rift evangelist, described what he called Oculus’s “nightmare scenario:” “People like the demo, they take it home, and they start throwing up.”

After the high cost of a headset and a rig to support it, the biggest hurdle for a company trying to launch virtual reality into the public consciousness was—and maybe remains—the threat of vomit. Simulator sickness, as a brand of motion sickness, is influenced by a significant number of factors. In a 2005 research report for the US Navy, David M. Johnson notes that “the incidence of [simulator sickness] can range from very low to exceedingly high, depending upon the simulator, tasks, conditions, and population,” and that “susceptibility to [simulator sickness] varies depending upon many factors, including age, flight experience, and prior history of [motion sickness].” That list also includes gender and variations in inner ear biology.

In flight simulators, the Navy has perhaps the most practical application of something resembling VR, and their research is focused on how they can minimize sickness and how well people can accomplish tasks while nauseated. On the other hand, when your goal is enjoyment of a game or movie, your threshold is probably lower, but maybe vomit in entertainment has a different appeal—it’s disgusting, but powerful and noteworthy, and it seems to keep coming up in popular art and culture in a way that other bodily functions don’t.

vomit is the limit of comfortable punishment

We must love watching other people throw up. Mashable editor Josh Dickey noticed last year that a surprisingly large number of films had scenes in which a character vomited—he counted 40, but suspected there might be twice that many. In comedies it’s a punchline to evoke nervous, grossed-out laughter, and in dramas it’s used to show the audience physical proof of a character’s internal state. Even if it’s increasing in popularity, this isn’t a new phenomenon: in 2007, Joe Queenan wrote an article at The Guardian with a similar thesis, and he wrote that he had been feeling queasy watching one puke scene after another in American films for a long while. “Every couple of years I would write about this abhorrent trend, in the hope that someone might realise that on-screen vomiting had become a cliche,” Queenan wrote, “and perhaps replace it with something classier and more dramatically cutting-edge, like ear-cleaning or nose-picking. But this never happened.”

Fly Paintings
“Fly Paintings” by John Knuth, made by 250,000 puking houseflies, via Huffington Post

Early Hollywood films were relatively free of vomit, but it started to seep in after the disappearance of the Hays Code in 1968. John Waters took full advantage of this freedom four years later while making Pink Flamingos, a film in which characters compete for the title of “filthiest person alive,” and take part in increasingly grotesque acts: a live chicken is crushed between two sexual partners, dog feces are eaten and—in the midst of a bizarre sex scene—someone threatens to puke, and then does. In his 1980 book Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste, Waters wrote, “If someone vomits while watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation.” Nicknamed the Pope of Trash and the Prince of Puke, Waters was not shy about his goal of disgusting his audience to their limits. His gleeful transgressions were deliberately situated on the outskirts of culture. But gross-out did eventually make its way to the mainstream in a slightly more palatable package when theater-goers were subjected to Linda Blair’s smooth green projectile vomit in The Exorcist (1973), but it seems like only the vomit made it, leaving the dead chicken and the poop behind. There’s a notable example in Bridesmaids (2011), in which several characters have indigestion at the same moment, leading one to poop in a sink, another in the street—while loud, both are tastefully covered by long dresses. Another character vomits as she runs towards a toilet, and the camera excitedly snaps to follow the chunky pink stream as it splatters across the wall. A friend of mine was so grossed out he couldn’t take it—he had us bring him back in when the scene was over.

The apparent appeal of vomit has led to its use in marketing, not just visually because it shocks (as in one bizarre Internet Explorer ad) but experientially: this sickness at watching a movie is a feature, in some cases. Indie horror film Bite (2015) posted a photo to Facebook of what looked like emergency responders after the premiere. Whether genuine or not, the post reads, “2 people fainted. One girl is puking,” and uses the involuntary reactions of these audience members to demonstrate the effectiveness of the film’s imagery and tension. Body horror on-screen translates to vomit off-screen—if these people can’t control themselves, the film must really be horrific—and the urges to scare oneself and to push oneself to the edge of sickness are linked. In the case of The Walk (2015), which tells the life story of tight-rope walker Philippe Petit, some people in the 3D screenings got sick. According to the New York Post, director Robert Zemeckis told reporters he was hoping to leave them with a case of vertigo, and the Post’s headline ascribes the vomit to the fact that the movie is “so realistic.” The intended vertigo puts viewers in a position to understand the tightrope-walking feats of its main character through their bodies. Their nausea and vomit is physical evidence of their real discomfort, which in turn demonstrates the realism of the film, and promises that it will affect you whether you like it or not. Since film supposedly strives to capture truth and real emotion, the promised realism stands in for filmic quality, too.

Artist Millie Brown works with this side of vomit in her performance pieces Nexus Vomitus and Rainbow Body: she drinks colored almond milk and vomits it onto canvases. She is probably best known for her collaborations with Lady Gaga, first in 2011 in a video short produced for Gaga’s Monster Ball tour, and then again in 2014, when she vomited on Gaga on stage at SXSW. While she has attracted controversy from those who connect her work to bulimia (from Demi Lovato, among others), she says, “I’ve personally never considered my performance shocking, to me it’s raw and honest.” For Brown, the work is deeply human, and the vomit painting is a testament to the reality of her inner self: “I wanted to paint an honest portrait of myself. I wanted to bring light out of darkness and show my thoughts and emotions through colour whilst leaving a part of myself and my dna on canvas to live on beyond me.” The resulting canvas is splashed with colors (she limits how many she uses now, for her own health and safety), like a pastel Pollock, but the associated performance can be hard to watch.

Millie Brown

On her website, Brown says that “No one has puked watching my performance yet although many have had to leave the room from fear they may. I would love to create a chain reaction if the crowd could all do their own colour.” For me, the difficulty of watching comes from the effort I see her putting in, and the familiarity of the discomfort I assume she is feeling. On the other hand, she told me that the unreliability of the piece is part of why it appeals to her—“if it’s easy or a struggle during the act, that’s what it’s meant to be,” and if there’s one emotion visible on her face in the clips of the performance, she doesn’t look especially pained or excited, she looks determined, focused, like the piece is somehow meditative. The title alludes to this, too—“rainbow body” is a kind of enlightenment described in Dzogchen teachings in Tibetan Buddhism, where a person reaching a certain level of realization of the nature of things turns into a body of light. When I asked if Brown connected her onstage or in-gallery vomiting to any vomiting that takes place outside that context, she explained that “Ancient tribes use vomiting in a ceremonial way, to purge of the old and the negative and to allow for the new and the light. I feel a connection to that in some form, but that’s it.” You don’t even have to go back that far to find examples of ritual vomiting—as late as the 1890s, Native Americans in the Southeastern US made a “black drink” from a kind of holly along with other emetic herbs, which Cherokee people would use as part of a purification ritual. In that regard, Brown’s project is less connected to artwork like the shock-prompting vomit of Viennese Actionist Günter Brus than it is to sympathetic vomiting, or seeking a powerful bodily reaction.

Vomit also serves as evidence of a real and valuable experience in the realm of theme parks. I vividly remember an episode of Arthur (1996-present) in which the titular aardvark and his rabbit friend Buster visit a carnival ride called the Hurl-a-Whirl. They call out in joyful unison when presented with “barf bags,” and proceed to ride the spider-shaped contraption repeatedly, each time producing an additional paper sack of puke. “I wish I could keep this thing,” Buster says, cradling as one might a child or puppy his very full bag of his own fresh, presumably warm vomit, “But I think my mom would freak.” Like Arthur and Buster, those who visit Six Flags might challenge themselves by staring down the threat of motion sickness. According to the Navy’s report on simulator sickness, “In most individuals the symptoms… subside in less than one hour,” meaning that while nausea and vomiting are not considered pleasant themselves, they are a relatively low-danger threat. When nausea kicks in, the rider decides they’ve been bested, and maybe sits out the next one. In film and in amusement parks, vomit is the limit of comfortable punishment.

Theme park rides are designed around this limit: the core element of a roller coaster track is the slow climb into a steep drop, which gives the temporary experience of an altered gravity. You can feel your stomach in free fall, which for no small number of people can lead to nausea. The Hollywood-based Wizarding World of Harry Potter recently opened a ride nearly identical to one in the Orlando version of the park that blends real animatronics with action shown on giant screens. In the Hollywood version, riders wear 3D glasses. While Universal maintains this was not the reason, early testers of the ride got sick more than is usual, and—while the specifics are unknown to the general public—they’re likely to have re-tuned the ride’s motions before opening it completely. That pukey reputation gets a TMZ headline, and it makes for a Buzzfeed article replete with gifs of Ron Weasley barfing slugs. At some point, vomit is noteworthy enough to be news, and these articles serve as a form of advertisement. In March, Samsung and Six Flags revealed that they’d be partnering to bring virtual reality to a new roller coaster, leading some to suggest that we might be approaching a new frontier for motion sickness, and therefore vomit. While Samsung’s press release contains no such text, Six Flags assures readers that “there is no motion sickness” because the visuals are “synched precisely” to the motion of the coaster, suggesting that this is a fear Six Flags is accustomed to discouraging.

virtual reality must do away with its connection to throwing up

Virtual reality aside, vomit in games is much more likely to show up on-screen than off. Usually it appears as set dressing: the ceiling-hugging aliens in Half-Life 2 (2004) belch out bones and a greenish soup of semi-digested human on death, the dwarves in Dwarf Fortress (2006) can cover their floors in vomit (or mythical beasts can be made out of it). In Edmund McMillen’s Spewer (2009), it’s a tool for moving around, and although McMillen has featured transgressive and body-centric elements in his games for some time, they tend to be bundled in such cutesy packages that they’re unlikely to make you run for the bathroom. The Binding of Isaac (2011) is grotesque and horrifying, but more on a psychological level than an immediate and raw one. Metal Gear Solid 3 (2004) aspires to realism on an unprecedented level, so of course you can make Snake vomit. It can even be useful—if you’ve eaten spoiled food, this can cure Snake of the negative effects, but it’ll cost you a stamina bar. Even with Snake’s over-the-top retching noises, it doesn’t feel real the way it does even in movies like Stand by Me (1986)—perhaps because of the constraints of animation, we can’t identify well enough with Snake to feel nauseous when he does.

When players do vomit, it’s because plenty of people have trouble with first-person perspective and need field-of-view options to help keep them comfortable while playing. Not long after the last generation of consoles started, Mirror’s Edge (2008) was making people nauseous with its lack of onscreen score elements and stomach-turning first-person combat rolls. It was eventually patched to add a crosshair in the center of the screen for players to ground themselves with, as a ballerina watches a static wall while spinning. More recently, the head-bob in The Witness sent a few people reeling, and a similar solution was reached: a patch added a crosshair and a field-of-view slider.

But increased field of view and crosshairs can actually have the opposite effect in virtual reality: on-screen UI elements that move with the player’s head are uncomfortable, leading to an increase in in-world interfaces like the one in Elite Dangerous (2014), or in Valve’s Dota 2 (2013) VR spectator mode. There are still a lot of kinks to iron out, though—this YouTube user has a sinus deformity she didn’t know about, which changes how her sense of balance works. She found out about it when her Oculus Rift made her incredibly sick after a relatively short play session. If we don’t have an understanding of all the ways VR can make people upchuck, we can’t combat them, but despite the allure of vomit in other media, it benefits manufacturers to keep making these machines more comfortable—nobody rides a roller coaster for hours on end.

VR Nose
A VR Nose sits in the middle of the viewer’s sight

What exacerbates sickness for a VR player is a mismatch between the world displayed and the player’s expectations for how the world really works—older VR technology seemed especially likely to make people ill, but as units were developed with higher and higher resolutions and refresh rates, the threat of vomit was mitigated somewhat. Head tracking helped, and adding a nose as a grounding element has also been shown to reduce simulator sickness. Researchers at Columbia University are working on another solution to VR sickness—when players move the analog sticks quickly, the field of view shrinks to cut down on peripheral vision. The difference between a static player and an accelerating game world is less jarring with this addition, they say.

This fascinated revulsion does not seem to be driving interest in VR, though—Oculus and Valve are working to minimize or completely get rid of simulator sickness, although according to the Navy’s 2005 report, “Adaptation is the single most effective solution to the problem of [motion sickness] and [simulator sickness]. Most individuals adapt within a few sessions, some individuals require considerable exposure to adapt, and 3%-5% of individuals never adapt.”

Oculus’s best practice guidelines are extensive, and aim to prevent developers from creating experiences that would sicken players, leading to a negative impression or association with the headset or with VR in general. They list factors that can lead to simulator sickness, including latency, but also give tips like “avoid filling the field of view with the ground,” and “encourage users to take breaks.” The Navy backs up that last point, saying, “One important guideline was that no simulator session should ever exceed two hours in duration.” Google Cardboard avoids the problems of simulator sickness by forcing you to use your arm to hold up the headset—this makes you turn your body instead of just your head (which improves the tracking capabilities of your phone), and it will keep you from watching tons of content at once, just as a practical matter.

Where other media can use vomit as a connection between fiction and reality, this potential does not seem to exist for VR. Outside of VR, creators are able to invoke visible vomit or the threat of minor nausea to appeal to authenticity, to evoke a deeply human sympathetic reaction in their audiences, but virtual reality—in order to sufficiently ape reality—must do away with its connection to throwing up. Oculus’s guidelines state unequivocally that “No matter how fundamentally appealing your content is or how badly a user wants to enjoy it, almost no one wants to endure the discomfort of simulator sickness.” At some level, the push away from puking is more a move towards comfort than towards realism, and other elements of their documentation represent that.

Among other not-quite-real suggestions, they include that “an instantaneous burst of acceleration is more comfortable than an extended, gradual acceleration to the same movement velocity,” and that skyboxes that simulate “giant rooms” are more comfortable than ones that simulate outdoor spaces. Oculus seems to be aware of this disconnect, and they end the section titled Combating Simulator Sickness by saying “ All the methods described in this section have the potential of reducing discomfort at the cost of producing a veridical, “realistic” experience of the virtual environment. It is at your discretion to implement any of these methods, but keep in mind that more comfortable content will be accessible to more users and may be worth the tradeoff. A compromise between an optimally realistic and optimally comfortable experience is including these methods as user-configurable options that can be enabled or disabled. Users who experience less discomfort can opt into the more veridical experience, while sensitive users can enable methods that help them to enjoy your content.” A vomit-free VR experience is incompatible with realism for now, and maybe permanently.


Header image: Confetti Death, 2011, Typoe, via HypeBeast

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