Is Virtual Reality Bad for Our Health? Studies Point to Physical and Mental Impacts of VR Usage

During the early iterations of virtual reality headsets, there were cases of users reporting headaches, eye strain, and dizziness. Can VR have a long-term health impact?
Is Virtual Reality Bad for Our Health? Studies Point to Physical and Mental Impacts of VR Usage
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The well-documented arrival of the Apple Vision Pro has heralded a new frontier for virtual reality technology. But could this brave new world of VR come at a cost to our physical and mental health? 

There’s plenty of impressive technology packed under the Apple Vision Pro, which the leading tech firm calls its “first spatial computer.”1 With an ultra-high resolution display boasting 23 million megapixels across multiple displays, the Vision Pro represents the most sophisticated iteration of consumer virtual reality to date. 

With Apple’s Vision Pro intent on setting a new standard in how consumers use VR in their everyday lives, it’s once again important to look at prolonged exposure to virtual reality and how it can impact our physical and mental well-being. 

During the early iterations of virtual reality headsets entering the market in the 2010s, there were cases of users reporting headaches, eye strain, dizziness, and nausea after using their headsets, which attempt to offer immersive experiences that closely replicate our real-world senses.2

These symptoms can be triggered by a response to ‘VR illusion’, which makes user's eyes focus on objects perceived to be far away when in actual fact they’re projected a matter of millimeters away on a display. 

With this in mind, let’s take a look at what the emergence of the latest generation of virtual reality headsets may mean for the health of wearers, based on data recorded throughout global studies:

Measuring the Physical Impact of Virtual Reality

In a 2020 research paper from the UK Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, the findings show that much existing research into the use of domestic VR systems focuses on cybersickness as an adverse effect of usage.3

Cybersickness, which is acknowledged as a form of motion sickness, can generate physiological effects such as a loss of spatial awareness, nausea, dizziness, and disorientation. The paper also acknowledges short-term effects including eye soreness and trouble focusing, impaired hand-eye coordination, impacted depth perception, weakening reaction times, and a loss of balance. 

When it comes to measuring the duration and strength of cybersickness, the paper states that such side effects can vary based on both the individual and the VR stimuli that they’re exposed to. 

The notion that cybersickness can be triggered by VR illusion appear to be corroborated by the 2022 paper on ‘Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality Measurement Under Different Environments: A Survey on Head-Mounted Devices’, in which authors Hung-Jui Guo et al noted that in mixed reality environments, “they found both overestimation (at 25 to 200 meters) and underestimation (at 300 to 500 meters) of distances.”4

In exploring the phenomenon of VR illusion, Leeds University, UK, found that just 20 minutes of exposure to virtual reality could begin to impact the ability of children to understand the distance of objects.5

It’s these concerning early impacts on the physiological functionality of children that have led organizations like the NSPCC to offer guidance for parents on the VR usage of their kids.6

Addressing Cybersickness

Instances of cybersickness have been problems that became prevalent with older generations of virtual reality hardware. 

“Older virtual reality technology had significant impacts on users and often the after-effects lasted up to 24 hours,” notes Shamus Smith, a researcher from the University of Newcastle, Australia, who had been exploring the impact of VR on the cognitive function of individuals.7

In his 2020 research paper, ‘Testing the impact of virtual reality experiences on peoples’ reaction times’, Smith and co-author Liz Burd found that many manufacturers of the time offered only very general information about cybersickness within their products, with only a lack of evidential data to support guidelines. However, there’s some evidence that this may be changing. 

In launching their Vision Pro product, David Reid, professor of AI and spatial computing at Liverpool Hope University, has highlighted that Apple has made some key adjustments to counter instances of cybersickness. 

“It is better, but it still isn’t ideal. The main problem with VR motion sickness is Vergence-accommodation conflict (VAC),” Reid explained. “With Apple, they’ve tried to reduce the motion sickness as much as possible. By reducing lag and delay and utilizing high-quality displays, Apple has made a headset that is still best in class for motion sickness.”8

Should Apple identify cybersickness and Vergence-accommodation conflict (VAC) as an issue to tackle head-on, consumers may be more emboldened to enjoy virtual reality with fewer short-term physiological effects, but it remains to be seen just how efficient the Vision Pro will be in cutting out motion sickness among users altogether. 

Addressing the Threat of Injury and Long-Term Ailments

While there’s little data available that address the long-term effects of virtual reality, there are concerns that prolonged exposure to screens at such short distances could cause more cases of myopia among wearers–with forecasts already anticipating that as much as 50% of the global population could be affected by the condition by 2050.9

Myopia is a form of low vision that can negatively impact individuals as a result of sustained exposure to screens, and with limited options for successful treatments, could reach endemic proportions with the emergence of VR devices that make little consideration for the health of wearers.10

It’s also essential to consider the impact that accidents can have on wearers of virtual reality headsets. “I see more falling than anything else,” noted Marientina Gotsis, associate professor of research at the Interactive Media and Games Division of the University of Southern California. “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.”11

Analyzing the Psychological Impact of Exposure to VR

Worryingly, neurological tests in rats have shown that virtual reality can lead to significant cognitive alterations within the brain. 

According to a 2014 study at the University of California which involved testing rats in virtual reality environments, the neurons in a brain region associated with spatial learning behaved entirely differently in virtual reality in comparison to the real world. Results showed that more than half of the neurons in the brain shut down while in virtual reality.12

While the test failed to address the human implications of the experiment, it stated a clear need for more research on the long-term effects of VR on human users. 

The necessity of such research is high. According to 2019 figures from Anses, the average virtual reality session for users lasts for over an hour.13 While the same findings suggest that 12-13 years is the most popular age range for VR exposure among children with video games becoming a dominant pastime among users. 

Could Virtual Reality Amplify Our Emotions?

The topic of video games as a popular use case of VR is significant. While we’re used to playing video games on television or computer screens, evidence suggests that the added immersive layers offered by virtual reality could lead to a far stronger imprint on our brains. 

According to a 1994 study on the impact of early virtual reality systems, it was found that addictive gaming and virtual reality were leading to ‘elevated levels of aggression or hostile thoughts’, though at the time there was little evidence that VR had amplified such emotions beyond that of the 2D games of the time.14

However, a 2020 journal article entitled ‘Virtual experience, real consequences: the potential negative emotional consequences of virtual reality gameplay,’ found that a correlation could be made between virtual reality and amplified negative emotions among players.15

In comparing virtual reality users and laptop users during gameplay scenarios, the study found that “intensified negative emotions resulting from VR had a significant positive correlation with negative rumination (i.e., harmful self-related thoughts related to distress).”

Given the all-encompassing immersive qualities of virtual reality, this may call for video game manufacturers to reconsider their approach to adapting original titles for VR environments, given the vastly different sensory reactions they could create among users. 

In one pre-existing use case documented by Tech Monitor author Greg Noone, one user who frequently played extended sessions on the post-apocalyptic game Fallout 4 in virtual reality became so accustomed to their virtual surroundings that it began to blur the boundaries between VR and reality.16

In discussing leaving the house, Noone’s interviewee claims that he would act as though he was still in a simulation. “I’m just saying things to myself like, ‘Oh, these graphics are really good,’” said the anonymized individual. “And, I’m pantomiming these things in VR, like hovering my hand over something to learn more about it.”

The individual would also discuss experiencing problems in reintegrating with the ‘real world’ following long gaming sessions, noting that “I was just completely unable to hold a conversation,” when recalling a time meeting friends.

With the virtual reality market expected to nearly double to a value of $22 billion dollars by 2025, we’re likely to see levels of public adoption for virtual reality headsets that could call many of the negative effects of such immersive products into question.17

As the market has been invigorated by the entrance of Apple into the race for VR dominance, it’s imperative for manufacturers to cater for the physical and psychological wellbeing of their customers. 

VR as a Force for Mindfulness?

Although there are certainly psychological impacts associated with the emergence of more immersive VR solutions that must be explored and addressed, it’s worth highlighting that research shows virtual reality can also be a force for good in fighting against depression in some users. 

While in their research article ‘Social Virtual Reality (VR) Involvement Affects Depression When Social Connectedness and Self-Esteem Are Low: A Moderated Mediation on Well-Being’, Lee Hyun-Woo et al acknowledged that excessive play can lead to adverse psychological effects, the article also highlights that playing social games can be a means of boosting mental health and combatting stress.18

It’s the prospect of connecting with people online in social environments that could help virtual reality to become a force for mindfulness–particularly among users who live away from friends or family. 

In a 2018 study19, 77% of VR users claimed that they desired more social engagement in virtual reality. This clear desire for users to socialize and interact with others in VR environments can represent an opportunity for developers to help to improve the ability of users to interact with one another and to mitigate the negative emotions that may arise with more complex and immersive video games. 

The Road Ahead for Virtual Reality

Apple’s Vision Pro is unlikely to be the tech giant’s most sophisticated attempt in the virtual reality space, and over the coming years, consumers can enjoy a litany of high-end, high-performance reality headsets that can offer more immersive experiences and better measures to tackle feelings of cybersickness. 

With these more intuitive products, the emphasis will switch to ensuring that users avoid the negative psychological effects of isolation and the impact of hyper-realistic gaming experiences. 

Although more social tools can help to promote healthy engagement with friends and family on a more meaningful level in VR, the biggest challenge of the future will revolve around toeing the line between healthy gaming usage and the sensory experiences leveraged by games. 

Toeing the line between realism and customer wellness will become the balancing act that virtual reality firms must undertake to keep users safe and happy. For all the power of the Vision Pro, it’ll be the welfare of customers that could decide which VR device rules the market of the future.

References

1 “Introducing Apple Vision Pro.” 2023. Apple. https://www.apple.com/uk/newsroom/2023/06/introducing-apple-vision-pro/.

2 Shields, Jon. n.d. “Are VR headsets bad for your health?” BBC Science Focus. Accessed July 11, 2023. https://www.sciencefocus.com/future-technology/are-vr-headsets-bad-for-your-health/.

3 “The safety of domestic virtual reality systems.” 2020. GOV.UK. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/923616/safety-domestic-vr-systems.pdf.

4 Hung-Jui, Guo. 2020. “Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality Measurement Under Different Environments: A Survey on Head-Mounted Devices.” JOURNAL OF LATEX CLASS FILES 19, no. 9 (September): 1. 2210.16463.

5 Shields, Jon. n.d. “Are VR headsets bad for your health?” BBC Science Focus. Accessed July 11, 2023. https://www.sciencefocus.com/future-technology/are-vr-headsets-bad-for-your-health/.

6 “Virtual Reality Headsets.” n.d. NSPCC. Accessed July 11, 2023. https://www.nspcc.org.uk/keeping-children-safe/online-safety/virtual-reality-headsets/.

7 Smith, S.P. and E.L. Burd: “Response activation and inhibition after exposure to virtual reality,” Array (2020)

8 Adorno, José, Chris Smith, Joe Wituschek, Andy Meek, Joshua Hawkins, and Jacob Siegal. 2023. “How Apple Vision Pro will prevent motion sickness.” BGR. https://bgr.com/tech/how-apple-vision-pro-will-prevent-motion-sickness/.

9 Capogna, Laurie. 2023. “Is VR Bad for Your Eyes? | Niagara Falls.” Eye Wellness. https://myeyewellness.com/is-vr-bad-for-your-eyes/.

10 “Low Vision Causes and Treatments.” n.d. Eyeglasses. Accessed July 11, 2023. https://blog.eyeglasses.com/vision-magazine/low-vision-causes-and-treatments/.

11 LaMotte, Sandee. 2017. “Virtual reality has some very real health dangers.” CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2017/12/13/health/virtual-reality-vr-dangers-safety/index.html.

12 Gent, Edd. 2016. “Are Virtual Reality Headsets Safe for Children?” Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/are-virtual-reality-headsets-safe-for-children/.

13 “What are the risks of virtual reality and augmented reality, and what good practices does ANSES recommend?” 2021. Anses. https://www.anses.fr/en/content/what-are-risks-virtual-reality-and-augmented-reality-and-what-good-practices-does-anses.

14 Berger, Bennat. 2021. “The Psychological Implications of Virtual Reality.” HackerNoon. https://hackernoon.com/the-psychological-implications-of-virtual-reality.

15 Lavoie, R., Main, K., King, C. et al. Virtual experience, real consequences: the potential negative emotional consequences of virtual reality gameplay. Virtual Reality 25, 69–81 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10055-020-00440-y

16 Noone, Greg. 2022. “Is virtual reality bad for our mental health?” Tech Monitor. https://techmonitor.ai/technology/emerging-technology/is-virtual-reality-bad-for-mental-health.

17 Alsop, Thomas. 2023. “Virtual reality (VR) - statistics & facts.” Statista. https://www.statista.com/topics/2532/virtual-reality-vr/#topicOverview.

18 Lee Hyun-Woo, Kim Sanghoon, Uhm Jun-Phil, Social Virtual Reality (VR) Involvement Affects Depression When Social Connectedness and Self-Esteem Are Low: A Moderated Mediation on Well-Being. Frontiers in Psychology, Volume 12, 2021 (https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.753019)

19 Koetsier, John. 2018. “VR Needs More Social: 77% of Virtual Reality Users Want More Social Engagement.” Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnkoetsier/2018/04/30/virtual-reality-77-of-vr-users-want-more-social-engagement-67-use-weekly-28-use-daily/?sh=72f676c818fc.

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