Journeys in self-driving cars might be much less stressful, but could also increase cases of motion sickness, as drivers give up the wheel and the visual distractions that usually help to ward off nausea. To combat the issue, researchers are developing a new wearable featuring a system of moving lights.

Sitting on your nose like a pair of augmented reality specs, the device uses "lights or similar visual stimuli" that are specially coordinated to match the movement and the speed of the autonomous vehicle. A similar artificial light show could be built into the car cabin itself rather than worn as a wearable, suggest the team of inventors from the University of Michigan (U-M).

While the causes of motion sickness remain something of a mystery for experts, the general consensus is that it happens when what we're seeing gets out of sync with our vestibular system, the inner ear and brain network that manage our balance. Our brains can't decide if we're stationary or not, and that causes the feeling of sickness.

With the imminent arrival of autonomous cars, we're all more likely to be spending time watching videos and reading books while motoring along, and that's going to cause a conflict between our eyes, which think we're sitting still, and the rest of our sensory system, that insists we're zooming through space.

The researchers say around 50 percent of adults can suffer from motion sickness on car journeys, but the wearable in development should mitigate these effects by reminding our eyes that we are indeed on the move. The new system could mimic the velocity, acceleration, lateral movement, vertical movement, yaw rate, roll rate, and pitch rate of the vehicle, according to the patent, so it would be similar to staring out of the window at the moving world to prevent motion sickness.

"The productivity gains that the proponents of self driving vehicles are talking about may not happen if we don't address the motion sickness problem," said Michael Sivak from the U-M Transportation Research Institute.

Not only will self-driving cars make it easier for us to do some work while getting from A to B, they'll also enable different seat configurations, perhaps letting a whole family sit facing each other. That's another scenario where some kind of nausea antidote might be required before everyone can enjoy the journey, and a wearable with some subtle flashing lights could reflect the direction of travel rather than the direction you're facing.

The patent outlining the system doesn't go into too much technical detail about how such a device would work, but says the concept could be applied to any kind of moving autonomous vehicle. At this stage there's also no guarantee such a gadget will ever see the light of day, though the U-M researchers are currently exploring ways to partner up with commercial firms to get this into production.

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