Can Virtual Reality (VR) mess with your head?

Is VR bad for you and your health? Back in March I was at the D3DLive 2017 show at Warwick University. There was a track on VR, AR and professional visualisation plus the chance to try out several pieces of VR/AR/visualisation kit both on the show floor and during a fascinating tour of the WMG (Warwick Manufacturing Group) labs.

The true VR applications seem to me very much limited to the preview experience for something remote or that doesn’t exist e.g. previewing a building or car interior options or for training e.g. firefighters/army etc. The preview experiences are something I imagine would be in general short experiences but training scenarios I imagine could last for a protracted duration.

I also had a chat with a journalist who tested a number of VR solutions for a recent showdown magazine review special on VR; he commented that after several weeks prolonged use (several hours a day) he’d developed a headache that lasted literally 3 whole weeks.

So is VR bad for you?

I don’t know but personally I don’t really enjoy it.

Trying out a few of the demos at D3DLive, even for a few minutes was unsettling, something felt odd. I don’t know how much of it was partly because being cut off from some of your senses by having a headset strapped to your face or something feels odd. But it also raised the question in my head as to whether VR could mess with your brain / eyesight and eventually rewire your brain?

I should make it clear that this is a technological/scientific issue and no opinion or research on the quality of implementation by any manufacturer is intended or implied.

Dodgy VR, low quality VR with poor frame rates is well-known to cause a kind of anti-motion sickness effect. Motion sickness is when your body feels it’s moving but your eyes aren’t telling you that (i.e. sitting in the back of a car with the static car interior). If frame-rates are low your eyes move but what you see doesn’t as you expect causing this kind of anti-motion sickness. In regular TV viewing 30fps (frames per second) has long been the standard but for interactive, highly-visual work 60 fps has become the standard. For VR though with the proximity of the screen and multi-sensory interaction mean 90fps is widely considered the minimum and some err towards 120fps.

High-frame VR once you’ve got past the fps issues, fundamentally has a bigger motion-sickness problem built in, the “vergence accommodation problem”. Fundamentally how your eyes behave when trying to focus on an object and how the lenses actually focus are different in real life to when using a traditional VR system, even if the resultant image your retina sees is “the same”. There’s an excellent explanation of this over on VRInflux by Adrienne Hunter, which also covers many techniques to mitigate and minimise issues.

The physicist in me suspects there may be a solution in a smart variable contact lens that could trick your eye into physically focussing on a virtual image in the same way it would in real life. There are plenty of materials whose properties can be varied dynamically under electromagnetic stimulation. Plenty of tech companies are investing in trying to solve these issues so it’s worth a good hard google on “vergence accommodation”.

My gut reaction

A few years ago I read about an experiment to invert human vision and there have also been numerous medical cases of people suffering severe brain trauma, strokes or children born with hydrocephalus who have gained functionality from different parts of their brain/relearned capabilities i.e. neurons can reprogram themselves. Most VR in some way interferes with the link between eyesight, body and brain interpretation and that worries me.

The peculiar gender / ethnic medical data

There’s an awful lot of research on motion sickness and similar side effects from VR but interestingly a chunk of it is dedicated to factors that make someone more likely to experience problems. Lots of studies have concluded that women are 4x more likely to experience problems. Some studies have even found data suggesting ethnic background is a factor too. There doesn’t seem to have been a definitive conclusion on why this is and the lack of causal links concerned me. These technologies are interfering/interacting with our brains, eyesight and bodies (perhaps even body chemistry and hormones).

So is VR safe?

I went and bought one of those cheap £5 headsets designed to be used with your mobile phone and read the “safety information”. It was somewhat vague and woolly and recommended against “prolonged usage” but did make it clear it should not be used by children. I actually bought it in Poundland and the other customers buying it seemed to be 10-12 year olds spending pocket money.

If you google “Is VR safe for Children?”, “Is VR Dangerous?” you get plunged into a world of data, experiments on rats suggesting VR affects Neurons, opinions from ophthalmologists etc. but no real conclusions and little definitive regulation or consumer advice.

So my overall thoughts on VR and headsets in particular:

  • Can see excellent use cases for design visualisation, automotive cave like work, CAD/AEC part and architectural planning. Use cases for engineers and designers.
  • Can see limited cases for retail preview e.g. customised car interiors in car/kitchen showrooms.
  • For training/safety simulations e.g. firefighters I can see great value but also have concerns that these use cases will be prolonged
  • Gaming, is a use case which isn’t critical and I imagine there’s a demand from those wanting to immerse themselves but I’m not convinced this type of prolonged usage is healthy (but I think that about gaming in general)
  • Overall, I’d use it if buying a new car (expensive items) but would go out of my way to avoid…. AR (Augmented Reality) however I’m a much bigger fan of, but I’ll leave that to another blog.

So for me at the moment VR is a bit like a McDonalds Happy Meal, I’m not adverse to it occasionally but day-in-day out consumption not something that feels sensible. I’ve listed some links I read below so you can draw your own conclusions on their quality. Of course, there may be better material that I didn’t read – so let me know if that’s the case!

A collection of links and references:

A few photos from my day at D3DLive!


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