Just about every medium has had its share of people who claim that it’s somehow bad for you. TV? It will rot your brain. Computer games? They make kids violent, ya know. I’m pretty sure that when they finally moved away from scrolls to books there was someone saying how the bound book with its evil page turning would be the ruin of society.
So it’s good to approach any claims that VR is bad for you with a healthy pinch of skepticism. After all, new things are scary and people will blow small things out of proportion through fear. That doesn’t mean that VR doesn’t have health implications. It just means we should have a calm head when talking about the subject. As a user of VR or someone who lives in a household with other VR users, it’s important that you understand the general health risks that come with using VR and make sure that you deal with them constructively.
In this article I’m going to talk about some of the potential health issues that come as part of VR use. Not all of these will apply to all people and to all hardware, but I think this is a decent spread of common concerns.
The Eyes Have It
One of the most obvious points of concern are your eyes. After all, most of what VR has to offer is delivered straight to your eyeballs and into your brain via the optical nerves. So what could go wrong here?
There’s a persistent myth that looking at a computer screen all day causes all sorts of eye-related issues, such as nearsightedness. It turns out that there’s no particular danger in staring at a screen for prolonged times. However, looking at your computer screen and looking at the LCDs or OLEDs inside a VR headset is qualitatively different.
The lenses in VR headsets compensate for the short focal distance to the screen. So looking at those screens is like looking into the distance. That’s fine, but if you have existing eye problems and need glasses, you’ll need to make sure that the HMD can be adjusted in such a way that your eye(s) don’t strain to focus constantly. That’s a recipe for eye strain and all the unpleasantness that goes with it.
You should also pay attention to the brightness levels of the screens inside the HMD. Staring at a strong light source for a prolonged time can also cause strain, not to mention overworking your poor retinas. So dial the brightness down as much as you can while still keeping everything visible. Many applications have a brightness calibration tool to make sure you see the VR world as intended.
Can You Ear Me?
While this isn’t specifically a VR danger so much as a general headphone danger, it should still be on your list of things to consider. Simply put, having the volume on your headphones set too high can lead to permanent hearing damage and eventually deafness. Take it from someone who spent too much time mere feet away from concert PA systems – lifelong tinnitus is not fun. While having really thumping sound can help VR be more immersive, it’s not worth going deaf over.
A Pain in the Neck
Old-school VR from the 90s failed for many reasons, but one of them is that humans simple can’t have a huge, heavy object sitting on their heads all day. The neck strain potential was incredible and there’s no doubt about the general discomfort. It got so bad that they had to suspend some HMDs to take the weight off the user.
These days things are way better. HMDs tend to weigh a kilogram or less, but that doesn’t mean that your neck is now completely safe. For one thing, even a small weight like a modern HMD will put some strain on your neck over a longer period of time. That’s not the end of it, though. Another risk to your neck is repetitive strain from making the same small head movement over and over again.
Currently, VR takes more effort to look around your environment since you don’t have as much peripheral vision. Constantly looking back and forth can do a real number on your neck and, worst of all, you might not realize it until later.
Are you Sitting Down for This?
While VR experiences tend to be more active than simply using a computer, most home VR is still a seated experience. Sitting for long periods of time is known to wreak all sorts of havoc on the body.
It’s not just about gaining weight and all the nasty stuff that comes with that territory. Even people who exercise, have a healthy weight, and are otherwise fine can suffer serious health consequences from sitting for too long. It’s the whole reason we’ve had the standing desk fad in recent years.
While this risk is definitely just as true for normal computer use, there’s a key difference between using VR and a standard PC in this context. With a PC you are still aware of your surroundings. Your focus can be more easily taken from the digital world to the real one. With VR you are much more engaged and, I think, more likely to sit for longer than is healthy.
A Stand Up Guy
Ironically, especially given the standing desk fad, standing for too long is also bad for you. So if you’re a fan of those stand-up Vive experiences you might want to make sure that you have good footwear and take regular breaks.
Nice Trip, See You Next Fall
Which reminds me of another thing. If you are standing up and moving around in VR, for the love of all that is holy make sure you clear up things around you first. Not only can a trip and a fall wreck your very expensive VR equipment, it could do some serious damage to you. After all, as far as the real world is concerned you’re walking around blindfolded. It might even be a good idea to invest in some flexible pads usually worn by skateboarders – the type of soft pad that companies like G-Form make.
Motion sickness happens when the orientation information that your eyes send to the brain doesn’t match up to the balance information sent by the inner ear. It can cause dizziness, nausea, and, if you’re unlucky, vomiting. This is one of the key issues that modern VR hardware is meant to have solved. However, some people seem more susceptible to it. It can also depend on the type of VR experience; if it involves a lot of spinning around you might just start feeling a little green.
Time is a Killer
You’ll probably notice that most of these problems are not so much an issue of the types of things that VR exposes us to, but more about how long we are exposed to them. Too much of a good thing is hardly ever healthy for us. The thing is, no one yet knows what a good balance of time really is. It’s likely to vary based on each person’s tolerance.
Some of these problems, such as the brightness of LCD displays, might be solved technologically. For example, retinal projection doesn’t cause the same sort of eye strain. With further refinement of VR technology it will likely become possible to reduce or eliminate these effects. Until then, watching yourself and limiting time is the only real way to enjoy VR responsibly.
Apart from the physical effects of VR there are more subtle, mental effects to take into account. It’s early days to know what embodied VR really does to the mind, but even before VR became something Joe Public could take part in easily there were concerns about the effects of other media. Do violent movies make people violent? Do horror films cause trauma? At one point that was a pretty common belief. In some specific instances people have been “inspired” by films to do some messed-up things. Of course, the vast majority of well-adjusted humans can watch movies, be entertained, and come out just fine.
Video games were the next medium to come under scrutiny. The added interactivity and growing realism raised concerns that games would teach kids (and later adults) how to be antisocial miscreants; that time spent shooting up virtual people would lead to real life violence. Those connections have been shown to be tenuous, with other factors such as severe mental disorders being present to twist the medium’s responsibility.
Then we come to VR. As I explained in another article, VR has been used to treat mental disorders for decades now, but that also implies that VR has psychological effects. What they are and how serious they could be is still an open question, but researchers are working in this problem as I write this.
VR and Kids
There are plenty of things that are pretty harmless to us as adults, but are much more dangerous to children. Because kids are still developing, they’re more vulnerable. For example, when Nintendo launched their 3DS console it turned out that the autostereoscopic screen might have permanent negative effects on the vision of children under a certain age. This is why the product now carries a warning to that effect.
I think it also stands to reason that you should take age restrictions on content seriously, especially when it comes to VR. You may feel that your 16-year-old is mature enough to play the latest VR horror game, but the actual experience may be more intense than either of you expect.
What To Do
So with all this health-scare business, what exactly should you do about it? The one measure I have already mentioned is limiting how much time you actually spend in VR. Maybe don’t stay in there for longer than an hour without taking a break. Of course it’s no fun constantly having to think about time limits, so you might just want to set some sort of alarm in order to remind you when it’s time to take a 15-minute breather.
Having regular breaks like this will help mitigate most of the more common issues I’ve talked about, but there are more subtle things to watch out for. Perceptual disturbances, especially ones to your vision, are of concern. Changes in your mood or sleep patterns after starting to use VR regularly are also worth watching out for. We don’t really know what’s going to happen to some people once VR really becomes commonplace, but knowing something is wrong is the first step to it all. That’s not the same as saying that VR will be bad for you – just that you should have awareness.