Vection: Using virtual reality to test why some astronauts feel disoriented in space

Many of us dream of experiencing the sensation of floating in space, or flying through the International Space Station (ISS). There is a downside, though, since some astronauts actually feel sick or disoriented in space. This may lead them to misinterpret the direction and speed of their movement, which could be dangerous if it interferes with tasks involving robotics, for instance, when the crew captures unpiloted spacecraft using Canadarm2.

What is vection?

Vection is the feeling of self-motion that occurs when looking at a moving scene—even though you are actually motionless. You may have experienced vection at the subway when a nearby train arrives or leaves, and you had the feeling that your train moved in the opposite direction.

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is funding a new Canadian study called Vection to gain a better understanding of the effects of reduced gravity on astronauts' perception of self-motion, particularly how the brain interprets visual signals and how a moving astronaut may misinterpret acceleration as tilting. Led by Dr. Laurence Harris from York University and his team of researchers, Vection will study how visual cues affect the impression of motion in weightlessness, examine whether those cues could be confusing, and create a model of how reduced gravity influences how we process visual information.

York University aims to recruit at least six astronauts for its study. Data will be collected before, during and after their space missions through visual simulations using a virtual reality system. The astronauts will be tested to measure how they perceive motion and judge distances as they are immobile and immersed in a 3D environment on Earth and in space.

Vection study's Edgeless Graphics Geometry (EGG) large-field display

This image features the edgeless graphics Geometry (EGG) large-field display (made possible by funding from the CFI and developed by Christie®). The Vection research team will use it to assess the role the whole visual field plays in the perception of motion and orientation, using high-resolution stereo graphics. (Credit: York University)

Applications on Earth

On Earth, motion perception is critical for tasks like walking or driving a car. The findings from Vection will help explain how visual signals affect our perception when we are in motion. The study's findings may advance research in a number of areas, including:

  • using virtual reality to assist patients recovering from a stroke and other studies benefitting seniors and people with disabilities;
  • understanding disorders affecting movement and posture, like Parkinson's disease; and
  • technologies on Earth that simulate motion, such as robotics or remote operations using robotic-assisted surgery.
A head-spinning photo from the Vection study's Tumbling Room

In this image, Vection's Principal Investigator, Dr. Laurence Harris, is taking a spin in the new Tumbling Room Facility (made possible by funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, CFI, and built by Dymech Engineering Inc.) The equipment will help the research team examine the role of gravity and motion in perception. (Credit: York University)

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