As a kid, I could read for hours in the back of a car zigzagging through the mountains, no problem. A full day of loop-de-loop roller coasters at a nearby amusement park was the highlight of the summer.
These days, simply sitting on a park swing makes me queasy. Reading in a car on a winding road? Not unless you want to see what I had for breakfast.
As a sufferer of motion sickness, I’m not alone. Almost everyone is susceptible to some degree—about 5 percent of us are severely affected, while another 5 percent are relatively immune. Women report more and worse sickness, as do migraine sufferers. Many people become less susceptible with age, while others (hello) become more.
Recently, a French company has begun selling a pair of glasses it says can reduce motion sickness in 95 percent of cases. The Boarding Glasses look like swim goggles for some four-eyed alien species, with two round lenses in front and two on the side, the hollow rims each half filled with blue liquid.
“Motion sickness comes from a sense of conflict between what your eyes can see and what your balance system and your inner ears can feel,” says Antoine Jeannin, CEO of Boarding Ring, the company that makes the glasses.
With the Boarding Glasses, the liquid moves with the movement of the boat or vehicle, creating an artificial horizon.
“Your eyes always get the reality of the movement and get a signal that is consistent with the balance system perception,” Jeannin says.
You put the glasses on at the first sign of sickness, leave them on for 10 or 12 minutes, and then take them off. Usually this cures you of nausea for the rest of the journey, Jeannin says.
The glasses were invented by Jeannin’s father, Hubert, who spent a career working in optics before dedicating himself to the problem of motion sickness. Hubert Jeannin patented his innovation in 2004 and tested the Boarding Glasses prototypes with the French navy, and, although the exact results are confidential, his son says it was extremely successful—some 95 percent of users found the glasses helpful within 10 minutes. Father and son now run the company together, with father handling innovation and son handling business. The €90 ($106) glasses are now in pre-order and will ship in December. There is also a special limited edition pair being developed for the Citroen auto company.
The Boarding Glasses are the latest in a series of anti-motion sickness innovations going back thousands of years. Ancient Chinese texts speak of seasickness as well as “cart sickness”—motion sickness caused by riding in a horse-drawn cart—and “litter sickness,” caused by riding in a sedan chair. The Yuan Dynasty physician Zhu Danxi suggested drinking the urine of young boys as a remedy. Later Chinese medical texts recommend praying to the goddess of sailors or bringing a bit of dirt from your kitchen floor along on a sea journey, for protection. Early Greeks and Romans also recognized seasickness and noted that professional sailors were relatively immune. Their cures included sniffing fragrant herbs like thyme and mint, rubbing ground wormwood in the nostrils, eating rose petals boiled in wine, or simply fasting before a voyage.
Though motion sickness is mainly a nuisance today, in the past it actually could have serious ramifications. Caesar wrote of how some of his troops, swept to Greek shores by stormy seas, were too exhausted to fight and were executed. When Napoleon launched a camel corps during his campaign in Egypt, some soldiers would become so sick from the animals’ swaying motion they couldn’t fight. Immigrants on the journey to the Americas over the centuries were known to occasionally die of seasickness-induced dehydration, as did babies whose seasick mothers could no longer produce enough milk.
Despite its commonness, motion sickness is not well understood. Most experts think it has something to do with a confusion between the signals received by the body (we’re moving!) and the ones received by the eyes (the seat in front of me is stable—we’re not moving!). But why, exactly, this causes nausea is not clear. One theory, from the 1970s, suggests nausea and vomiting is an evolutionary adaptation to the body-eyes signal mismatch, as this could historically have been caused by reactions to eating toxic plants. Another, more recent, theory suggests it may have to do with our inability to maintain a stable posture in a moving environment.
Common and well-accepted modern remedies for motion sickness include keeping your eyes on the horizon, choosing your seat wisely (front or driver’s seat in a car, center of a boat, over the wings on a plane), avoiding alcohol and fatty foods, and taking medications such as Dramamine or scopolamine.
But these are rarely complete cures. So people keep looking. We suck lemons, chew ginger and sniff peppermint oil. We try folk remedies like taping an aspirin to our belly buttons (Google it). Inventors have been working hard for a cure too, with sometimes curious results. There are patents for a number of anti-motion sickness devices, including a pair of blinders to block out visual information, a head mounted projection device meant to make visual information line up with sensory information, and shutter glasses that open and close rapidly, meant to prevent the visual slippage associated with motion sickness.
Thomas Stoffregan, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Minnesota who studies motion sickness, is skeptical that technologies like Boarding Glasses will be especially effective.
“People have been trying to use an artificial horizon in the context of motion sickness for several decades, at least since the 1970s,” he says. “It’s never worked. My question to this company is ‘what’s different about your virtual horizon?’”
In response, Jeannin says the Boarding Glasses are unique because they bring an artificial horizon to the peripheral vision—that's why the glasses have four lenses—unlike other products, which only engage the central vision.
Stoffregan, who pioneered the theory that postural stability—our ability to keep our bodies stable—is the main factor behind motion sickness, says the best motion sickness remedies don’t necessarily involve technology at all.
“One thing that demonstrably does help for seasickness is to get up on deck and look at the actual horizon,” he says. “In automobiles, I say sit in front and look out the window. Don’t look at the grass going by—look at the horizon. Also, sit down and use the headrest.”
Since the Boarding Glasses won’t be available to try for months, I’ll be testing out Stoffregan’s theory on my next car trip, eyes glued to the horizon, head pinned to the seatback.