I am sure many out there have gotten or are giving Virtual Reality (VR) headsets for this holiday gift giving season and sure, OK, so it’s pretty funny seeing someone fall over after trying a virtual reality headset for the first time. But with companies like Facebook, Valve, Samsung and Sony all pushing to bring their own VR solutions to a mainstream market — worth an estimated $30 billion by 2020 — maybe we should have more concern for what the technology is actually doing to our bodies and minds.
It’s true that every new technology comes with new fears — and often they’re completely unfounded. Some folks blamed the wireless radio for distracting children from their school work back in 1936, and Edison’s first electric power plant ran for two years before the American public actually trusted it.
But VR is a technology that will shortly explode into the mainstream — with people potentially immersing themselves for significant parts of their day — and there’s not been much discussion about the potential physical and mental health ramifications.
So what are the potential risks, and how real are they?
The immersive nature of virtual and augmented reality can induce stress or anxiety after wearing a full occlusion headset for more than a few minutes.
Depending on what images they are seeing, virtual reality can bring in waves of emotions more than just looking at photos or watching videos. For example, virtual reality footage of the war in Syria can cause the viewer to feel fearful, stressed and shocked.
It can take a while to get over this anxiety because the viewers experience everything as if they were there in the scene.
Some people who use VR headsets complain of dizziness and nausea. It is realistic simulated motions can affect a person’s perception of time and space and can induce fatigue, nausea or wooziness.
In fact, a UCLA Keck Center for Neurophysics study showed negative side effects of VR among lab rats, including “cybersickness” and abnormal patterns of activity in rat brains. Scientists also noted that 60 percent of the rats’ neurons simply shut down in virtual reality environments.
It is recommended that users take frequent breaks from virtual reality to avoid nausea. They can adjust the fit of the headset, tighten or loosen straps, as well as fixing the focal distance or eye distance.
- Eye strain
VR headsets can cause severe eye strain among users. They strain their eyes in order to focus on a pixelated screen that uses a single refractive optic element. Headsets do not usually addresses the optic issues with near-to-eye devices, and they quickly become uncomfortable after a few minutes.
Headset designers must find a way to maintain a large field of view (FoV) for the users. Humans typically have field of view of 200 degrees, involving 140 degrees of binocular vision for depth perception, and 60 degrees for peripheral vision. Headsets today are at 35 degrees FoV, giving the user the experience of merely “watching” the content. Increasing it to 60 degrees FoV or more can make users feel completely immersed in the displayed content and it becomes experiential.
Headsets should also mimic how human vision really works, to provide the most comfortable viewing experience for both 2D and 3D content. In physiological terms, headset makers need to solve this tension known as the “accommodation/convergence conflict,” and eliminate eye strain.
- Radiation exposure
Wearable technology like VR headsets potentially exposes the user to harmful electromagnetic frequency radiation. These devices make use of a wireless connections like Bluetooth or Wi-Fi to connect with your smartphone or computer; and are equipped with smart sensors that allow you to be immersed in the VR experience.
Some virtual reality headsets uses smartphones, which emit radiation. Numerous studies have already pointed out how cell phone radiation can affect the human reproductive system, disrupt sleep, or cause mood swings. Now, VR headsets work together with cellphones and can wirelessly connect to Wi-Fi___33–this means that they too emit radiation, and could in fact, pose long term health risks.
- Loss of Spatial Awareness
This one is super obvious and seems a simple fix: just be aware of the space around you before you put on the goggles. The problem is, however, that once you’ve been in VR for too long (more than 30 minutes), a lot of people tend to forget about these little objects that might cause them to fall over or wack a hand against a ceiling fan. Out of sight, out of mind, sort of thing.
Most devices also include a warning to see a doctor before use if you are “pregnant, elderly, or have pre-existing conditions that may affect your virtual reality experience such as vision abnormalities, psychiatric disorders, heart conditions, or other serious medical conditions.”
That warning includes implanted medical devices, such as cardiac pacemakers, hearing aids and defibrillators, as well as anyone with epilepsy or a history of seizures and blackouts. But manufacturers say some people can seize even without a history of blackouts, especially those younger than 20, so manufacturers suggest keeping an eye out for involuntary muscle twitches and loss of balance as a signal of a potential problem.
Daydream also suggests avoiding play entirely if you’re “intoxicated, overly tired, or are suffering from a cold, headache, upset stomach, or other sickness” because the experience of virtual reality might make you feel worse.
Oculus is already aware that using VR can cause problems with hand-eye coordination, and it warns Oculus Rift users about potentially dangerous symptoms of VR use.
“Do not drive, operate machinery, or engage in other visually or physically demanding activities that have potentially serious consequences — or other activities that require unimpaired balance and hand-eye coordination — until you have fully recovered from any symptoms,” reads the health and safety warning.
Most major manufacturers have set a cutoff age: no use of the device for children under the age of 13. Playstation VR set the age limit at 12; HTC’s Vive doesn’t mention an age only that it is not “designed to be used by children.”
Google Cardboard has no age restriction but says it should not be used without adult supervision.
The health and safety page for Google’s Daydream View says it straight out:
“If the content is frightening, violent, or anxiety provoking, it can cause your body to react physically, including increasing your heart rate and blood pressure. It can also, in some individuals, cause psychological reactions, including anxiety, fear, or even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
Virtual reality and augmented reality are gaining momentum as promising new technologies. The Samsung Gear VR headset unit sold out in many places over the holidays, and Facebook’s Oculus Rift headset was flooded with pre-orders this month.
Despite growing proclamations that 2016 will be “The Year of VR,” there has been a troubling lack of focus on the health and safety risks associated with strapping a large plastic brick over your eyes. If not properly addressed, this oversight could well come back to haunt the fledgling industry.