Virtual Reality (VR) is a technology that has become more and more accessible in recent years, to the point where our humble smartphones can now be converted into VR viewers. In addition, major players such as Google and Facebook have underlined their intentions to invest in this market, so it looks like the technology is here to stay.
However, sounding a warning are scientists at the University of Leeds, who have stated that as immersive as the technology may be, it doesn’t come without potential health risks – particularly for children.
As well as its increased accessibility, the type of applications for VR has also expanded beyond the stereotypical gaming environment and could change the way we live and work as well as how we play. To name just a few VR projects in the UK, the technology has been employed as part of a road safety initiative in Leicestershire, by Eurostar to offer an underwater experience while crossing the channel, and by the armed forces as a technique to tackle Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The University of Leeds are employing the technology themselves as dental students are being trained to examine teeth using VR headsets.
This increase in proliferation of the technology has brought its impact on our health into greater focus, however, it’s not the first time that concerns have been raised. Around 20 years ago several research groups, including the University of Leeds, highlighted fundamental issues around the design of VR.
The goal of virtual reality systems is to mimic the information that humans normally use to guide their actions, so that humans can interact with computer generated objects in a natural way.
The problems come when the normal relationship between the perceptual information and the corresponding action is disrupted. One way of thinking about such disruption is that a mismatch between perception and action causes ‘surprise’ which can be particularly problematic for children as their brains are not fully developed and will effect hearing and touch as well as vision, and different motor systems.
Research as far back as 1993 highlighted that VR systems provide a mismatch between where your eyes need to focus and where they need to point. The problem with existing virtual environments is that the computer generated images are shown on two dimensional screens, meaning that the eyes must stay focused in one location. However, the presentation of three dimensional binocular images forces the eyes to change direction as if they were gazing at a near or far object. This mismatch between the focusing and eye alignment systems creates surprise, and this places pressure on the human visual system to adapt. This in turn can cause headaches and soreness in the eyes, although long term impacts are unknown.
In this latest research the team at the University of Leeds tested 20 children aged between eight and 12 on a VR game. The results showed that two of the children experienced a disruption in stereo-acuity (the ability to detect differences in distance) and one child suffered a drastic worsening in balance. Although the side effects lasted a short period of time, the childrens’ exposure to the VR game was also only 20 minutes.
Commenting on the findings, Mark Mon-Williams, Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Leeds University, said: “There needs to be an understanding of how children interact with a virtual world - how they focus on objects and how they make sense of distances in that world. The crucial point is that we should tackle these problems now by designing VR devices so that they do not cause vision or balance problems.”