December 15, 2017

The Health Dangers of Virtual Reality

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An article by Sandee LaMotte, on the CNN website, is warning of what they call the “health dangers” of Virtual Reality.

The article - which tended to focus on the Vive and let the Oculus Rift off rather lightly - started rather trivially by pointing out the obvious dangers of using a VR headset in a crowded public space “without supervision.” While this warning might seem to come straight out of the “no shit Sherlock” Department, LaMotte goes onto warn of the inadequacy of the HTC Vive’s chaperone system - something that HTC itself acknowledges.

But in order to show that they are not limiting themselves to the Vive, the article quotes Marientina Gotsis, an associate professor of research at the Interactive Media and Games Division of the University of Southern California to the effect that: “"I see more falling than anything else. You can trip and hit your head or break a limb and get seriously hurt, so someone needs to watch over you when you are using VR. That's mandatory."

In other words: back to the no-shit-Sherlock school of logic.

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But from there - in fairness - the article takes a turn in the direction of seriousness and started discussing such issues as the effect of VR headsets on the eyes.  They quoted Martin Banks, a professor of Optometry at UCL Berkeley to the effect that "Looking at tablets, phones and the like, there's pretty good evidence that doing near work can cause lengthening of the eye and increase risk for myopia." But he qualified his apparent certainty, by adding: "We're all worried that virtual reality might make things worse."

The problem is that in real life, we look at a single image with both eyes and focus on whatever we are looking at. With VR and indeed with any immersive 3D headset each eye is served a separate image to create the illusion of 3D. In effect, the system is doing our brain’s work for us. Also, with VR we are looking at an image near the eye, that is then focussed by the hardware onto the retinas of the left and right eyes respectively. In real life the object of our attention is usually a lot farther away and the lens of our eyes does all the focussing (sometimes aided by eyeglasses or contact lenses).

Walter Greenleaf


Walter Greenleaf, a veteran behavioral neuroscientist who works with Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab admits: “We’re tricking the brain and we don’t know the long-term effect of this.”

VR Manufacturers advise taking breaks from VR immersion. But no one knows how frequently or for how long these breaks should be taken. Any specific suggestions are based on guesswork.

Another problem is that people playing video games might become so absorbed in the game that they are reluctant to break off, even if they feel eye strain. As visible eye strain is a warning mechanism, ignoring it for the sake of finishing a game could be harmful to the user.

Other problems raised include high volume to screen out ambient sounds (which conditions the brain to treat high volume as normal) and dangers of seizures in young people with no previous history, motion sickness and difficulty in re-adjusting to the real world when removing the headset.

The range of dangers is quite broad, from the physical (like spreading contagious diseases by sharing headsets) to the psychological (game addiction, mental fatigue).

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The article warns that the risk is greatest for children, because they are least likely to know when there is a problem or how to communicate about it, even if they notice something. Children are also more vulnerable to latent fear and the after-effects of games they play - even if they are not frightened at the time.

Some manufacturers give advice and even propose parentally-enforced age limits. For Playstation VR, Sony advises that it shouldn’t be use by those under 12. HTC warns that the Vive isn’t “designed to be used by children.”

Ultimately it is up to parents to decide for their children and adults to decide for themselves. The problem is that there is not currently enough information upon which to base one’s decision.

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