Virtual reality is something that’s no longer a virtual concept. It’s another technological marvel that pushes the limit of how we enjoy digital contents. Be it a movie, game or anything else; VR holds the potential for changing the scenario completely. It holds the potential to revolutionize the entire industry. With all the efforts from different companies and tech giants, it seems like that day isn’t so far away (at least, in theory).
No doubt, we’ll reach there at some point in the future. For experiencing VR (virtual reality), it’s necessary to wear all the related gadgets and load all the specialized software to give the experience of the virtual environment. But how much of this is healthy?
A question I hear a lot is: “Can virtual reality cause brain damage?”
There is no scientific evidence that Virtual Reality will cause permanent brain damage. There are some common health issues like dizziness, seizure and mild depression which VR can cause. However, the technology is very new and there are still much research on the subject.
We’ve come a long way in perfecting VR. Yet, there’s very little concern on the safe side. We’re not even sure if our brain is even ready to make the big technological jump. Moreover, the adverse effect of the gadgets on the brain is yet to be clearly understood.
Thankfully, there are already various efforts on the subject. Different researches are performed to figure out what effect the prolonged usage of VR can have in real life.
The history of VR
At first, let’s have a short look at how far we’ve come in the progress of VR.
The very first VR device came into reality in 1962. Developed by Morton Heilig, the device had a pretty interesting name: Sensorama. In this device, the user had to stay in front while the head being encased with a 4-sided screen. The user was able to watch any one of the five films with their unique sight, sound, touch, and smell. However, because the gadget was from a pre-digital age, everything was controlled mechanically.
The next big step was the invention of head-mounted displays (HMD). In 1968, the very first HMD was developed by Ivan Sutherland and Bob Sproull for immersive simulation applications. As it was the very first of its kind, the quality and resolution weren’t nearly as good as today. Moreover, the headset was so heavy that it had to be supported by metal cables from the ceiling.
From the 1970s to the 1990s, the progress in VR was pretty fast. VR industry was mainly prevalent in fields like the automobile industry, flight simulation, medical and military training purposes. Thanks to NASA’s investment and contribution to the field, the development got a big boost.
In 1979, another major leap in the progress was the development of the LEEP (Large Expanse, Extra Perspective) optical system. It was able to provide more in-depth details of the image with a larger field of view. This corresponds more to the real world. In 1985, the design got modified by NASA. This tech is still at the core of most of the VR headsets you’ll find in the market.
Atari is known for their contribution towards the gaming industry, right? In 1982, they got involved in the craziness of VR by setting up their own VR research lab. However, because of the video game crash of 1983, the facility had its fate sealed. Yet, the timeframe is still a pivotal time in the history of VR as big names like Scott Fisher, Michael Naimark, and Jaron Lanier. Jaron Lanier is responsible for popularizing the term Virtual Reality by the 1980s.
During the 1990s, the industry went through a boom. With more sensory feel and advancement in gadgets, users were able to see their own body in relation to others in the room. The very first cubic immersive room was developed by a Ph.D. student in 1991.
In 1991, Sega released their first VR headset Sega VR for arcade gaming along with the Mega Drive console. The Sega VR-1 motion simulator came out in 1994. In 1995, Nintendo also joined the train by releasing their Virtual Boy console.
At the start of 2000 and onwards, the improvement in tech allowed more and more hardware power at disposal. You can now enjoy the top-notch VR experience by grabbing an HTC Vive, Sony PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift, Lenovo Mirage Solo, or Samsung Gear VR and enjoy VR to your fullest.
Health impact of VR
VR is a growing tech and the potential is literally infinite. However, like any other tech, it’s not something without any drawbacks. Since the tech is so new, it’s understandable why no one is still not talking about health concerns. Thankfully, there are already a number of researchers performed on the impact of VR on human health and the result isn’t so engaging.
Let’s check out all the information we know so far.
Damage in brain’s GPS system
According to research performed on rodents, VR affects the brain completely differently than the real world. The research sheds some light on the clues to restore navigation ability and memory in humans.
In this research, the rodents were to run on a tiny treadmill set in a VR setup while their brain activity was recorded. The result shows that the animals’ brains didn’t form a mental map of their surroundings like they would in real-life settings. According to Mayak Mehta, a neuroscientist at the University of California and the lead researcher in the study, VR becoming more and more mainstream for lots of purposes – entertainment, military purposes, training and so on. However, what’s the actual effect of VR on the brain?
The result shows that the VR environment affects the GPS cells of our brain. Wait, what are GPS cells?
These cells in the brain are specialized neurons that work as a positioning system. The cells are responsible for creating a mental map of an environment using various available information, for example, the visuals, sound, smell and others. The discovery of these “GPS cells” led to the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 2014.
Equipped with specialized setup and monitoring tools, the rodents were to explore a virtual room. To the surprise of the researchers, the rodents didn’t develop a mental map of the VR world! However, when the rodents were to explore the same room in the physical world, their GPS cells fired off in the same pattern for producing a mental map.
This study was only performed on rats. However, Mehta believes that our brain also responds to the virtual world in a similar manner. So, it’s probably the best to spend time wandering around your neighborhood than spending hours wearing your fancy VR headset.
It’s a more common symptom that, I believe, is a common experience for almost any VR user. It’s more common to users who spend more time in VR.
VR sickness happens when exposure to VR causes symptoms similar to motion sickness. The most common symptoms include headache, stomach awareness, vomiting, nausea, general discomfort, fatigue, apathy, disorientation, and drowsiness. The symptoms may also include postural instability and retching. Despite having similarity, VR sickness and motion sickness are different.
For example, if you’re enjoying a VR content of a bumpy ride, then you may feel the VR sickness. When the visual is telling your brain that you’re bumping, the reality is, your body is standing still. This type of inconsistency causes your brain to become uncomfortable and causes VR sickness.
There are 2 sensory organs responsible for capturing the scenarios and passing the info to the brain about our orientation and movement. These are the eyes and the vestibular system. The vestibular system is a critical part. It acts more like a gyroscope for our body. While our eyes determine the 3D positioning of ourselves in the surrounding environment, the vestibular system indicates whether the body is stationary or moving.
Now, back to the impact of VR. When your eyes send the signal of bumping, your brain prepares for the bump. However, the vestibular system tells otherwise. The inconsistency confuses the brain and causes nausea and other symptoms.
It’s another major concern with the prolonged usage of VR. It’s no doubt that the tech is most likely to go mainstream in the future and this one is nothing to joke.
So, what is post-VR sadness? The best example to look at is Tobias van Schneider. He’s a designer and maker who founded Semplice. When Tobias started using VR for playing Google’s Tilt Brush (a nice VR app where you can draw whatever you want), he literally became a god. With his fiery paintbrush in the space, it was possible to tweak every single aspect. All he needed was a flick of the wrist to rotate the cloud; give it color. Tobias could jump from one world of his creation to another, effortlessly.
However, whenever he got out of the virtual universe, he’s back to a dreary reality. Lately, van Schneider started having some unsettling lingering effects. On a blog published in Medium, he describes what his experience was like. It was a strange feeling; a mix of disappointment and sadness. Everything surrounding him seemed less colorful. It was like there’s something missing. Such feelings led him to get disturbed easily at the reality and often times, ending up just sitting, staring at the walls.
Well, this is the post-VR sadness. It’s a feeling of depression; a sense of detachment from “something”. Tobias van Schneider isn’t the only person who experienced such a situation. You can find similar stories all over different forums like Reddit, Oculus Rift forums and other places. The range of emotion varies from having a temporary fuzziness, light-headed, staying in a dream-like state all the way up to severe detachment lasting for days to weeks! Sometimes, it can even lead to an existential crisis!
After removing the VR headsets, many people reported that they still feel like they’re in the virtual world. I talked about the similar experience of Tobias van Schneider before, right?
According to Gunwoo Yoon of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, playing as much as 5 minutes of a VR game as either hero or villain can lead to rewarding or punishing anonymous strangers in the real world. Now, that’s a pretty big psychological impact on the VR users’ minds.
In this research, 194 undergraduates were recruited to participate in 2 supposedly unrelated studies. They were randomly assigned to play either as Superman (heroic avatar), Voldemort (villainous avatar) or a Circle (neutral avatar). Then, the players had to play the game fighting against enemies for 5 minutes.
After the test, the players were asked to perform a different task that’s presumably unrelated from the first study. The participants were asked to offer chocolate and chili sauce to an unknown future participant. In this result, those who played as the villain avatar (Voldemort), poured 2 times more chili sauce than chocolate. However, those who played as hero avatar (Superman), poured 2 times more chocolate than spicy chili. Isn’t that interesting? Games can impact your mind like you didn’t even think of.
This study shows that playing a game can impact your attitude towards others significantly. Moreover, this test was performed with VR and that’s more concerning for the future VR-centered world.
If anyone is prone to seizures, then it’s the best to stay away from any form of VR. This tech may invoke a seizure response. However, for any average person without any similar problem doesn’t have to worry about seizures; at least, at the current point, no despite the fact that there are several cases reported for such incidents.
Staring too much at a digital display is always harmful for your eyesight. In the case of current VR tech, the headset has to be in front of your eyes. This can lead to eye strain. Tweaking the settings in the VR headset can reduce the impact. However, it’s been not so long to find out any significant effect of long-term usage.
For enjoying the VR contents, there has to be suitable speakers near your ears. As we already know, prolonged usage of headphones with high volume can damage the hearing beyond repair. The same principle applies to VR headsets as well. Even the official warning from Oculus Rift mentions the damage to your hearing for prolonged listening to high volume audio through your VR headset.
Most of the VR devices on the market will come with an array of other warnings like seeing a doctor if the user is pregnant, elderly or having complexities that might affect the VR experience including vision abnormalities, heart conditions, psychological disorders or other medical conditions. Google Daydream also forbids avoiding the usage of VR completely if you’re intoxicated, extremely tired or suffering from health conditions like upset stomach, headache and other sickness. The impact of VR can make things worse.
It seems like VR is making people sick in ways that couldn’t be predicted. It’s just hard to articulate these issues and even harder to identify its causes. That’s why the usage of VR must be under control.
The tech is still at the early stages of development with many improvements to happen. However, the further it progresses, the more problems it’ll bring out. Kids and teens are most prone to the mental and physical impact of VR. During the time of their development, the VR and its content can impact natural development significantly. As mentioned earlier, depending on the content, the VR is capable of altering people’s perception towards others.
There are also controversies about different VR contents, for example, horror games, brutal action, and others. That’s why if you’re getting a new VR for your children, make sure to set a ground rule – what contents to enjoy and what not.
After all, VR is a new tech and we still have a long way to go before we can fully understand impact of VR over our brain and overall health. VR is already a big part of advanced training areas: medical, military, automobile and a lot more. However, the more mainstream it becomes, the more careful we have to become on its impact.