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‘I feel sick, give me the bucket’: What 25 hours in virtual reality feels like

A Los Angeles writer set a world record after spending 25 hours playing a single game in virtual reality.

Derek Westerman, 32, took on the challenge after trying virtual reality for the first time earlier this year. Westerman was left wondering how long anyone could last in an experience that he considered intense and overwhelming.

When Westerman found out there was no world record for time spent in a virtual reality headset, Westerman pitched the stunt to Super Deluxe, a maker of comedic YouTube videos.

For the challenge Westerman spent the 25 hours making three-dimensional artwork in a game called Tilt Brush. Each hour Westerman would start a new painting, and shift between standing, sitting down or lying on the floor.

During the ordeal a support staff fed Westerman a few pieces of pizza and a Chipotle chicken burrito. The Guinness Book of World Records required two observers to keep a minute-by-minute journal of Westerman’s actions. He was not allowed to sleep or stop playing the game. Bathroom trips were replaced by a red bucket.

Westerman thought about quitting as he grew fatigued by the marathon session. To conserve energy he would paint extremely slowly. At one point he vomited into the red bucket.

Westerman, who ultimately said it was a great experience, hasn’t worn a virtual reality headset since setting the world record a month ago. For 24 hours after the experience Westerman said that everything looked uncanny. Spending a day in virtual reality changed how his brain registered space. Objects in the distance looked odd, as if they weren’t real.

HTC, the maker of the headset Westerman wore, recommends virtual reality users take periodic breaks. An HTC spokesman said the company has no official comment on how long one can wear a Vive headset. Google, maker of the game Westerman played, declined to comment on whether it had any recommendations for how long some should play the game.

Westerman was relieved the side effects faded in a day.

Human senses are capable of adapting well to new and different circumstances, according to University of Maryland professor Amitabh Varshney, who leads its virtual reality research efforts. Varshney recalled an experiment in which an Austrian professor outfitted his assistant with glasses that inverted his vision, turning the world upside down. While initially confused, before long he was able to perform everyday tasks such as ride a bicycle.

According to Varshney, Westerman’s experience highlights the progress in virtual reality headsets and games, which is making some users actually consider spending extended periods of time in the headsets.

“If you tried virtual reality a few years ago your experience would be dramatically different than today,” said Eric Romo, the chief executive of AltSpaceVR, which creates virtual reality software. “The inability of people to stay in virtual reality for a long period of time is not as real a problem as people think.”

Romo credits the change to the recent release of new headsets, including the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, plus better virtual reality games and experiences.

Earlier this year a German man spent 48 hours in a virtual reality headset playing games. At one point he complained of a rapid heartbeat, which he later concluded was a panic attack. But after the experience he was in good spirits.

Westerman’s need to puke in a bucket is also a reminder that the health impacts of the new technology have not been well-studied, according to Varshney, leaving users largely on their own to make sure they don’t overdo it.

Before his own challenge Westerman had concerns about whether he would do any serious damage to his health. He said a brief Google search led him to a few concerning message board posts warning of trouble focusing one’s eyes after long periods of virtual reality. Ultimately, he said, a nihilist worldview lead him to push forward. Given his enjoyment of extremely long movies, Westerman figured he could make it through.

Westerman expects his record to be broken shortly and would recommend the experience to an interested person. But he won’t be attempting another marathon session. He compared the decision to having watched a favorite movie for the first time and not wanting to re-watch it for fear of ruining the positive memory.

“I maxed out what I wanted,” Westerman said.“I’m just not chasing that dragon anymore.”