Long-term effects of virtual reality use need more research, say scientists

Virtual reality might be marching into the mainstream, but questions remain about its long-term effects, scientists say.

With a handful of virtual reality (VR) headsets on the market already, and more on their way with Sony announcing this week it will release a PlayStation set in October, the impact of such devices on eyesight, the brain and behaviour is still being established.

Current Healthy and Safety guidelines for the Oculus Rift list a host of possible side effects with warnings ranging from seizures, nausea and dizziness to – for children engaging in prolonged use – trouble with hand-eye coordination.

While many effects are believed to be temporary and leave no lasting damage, there have been few long-term studies into use of the technology.

Marty Banks, professor of optometry at the University of California, Berkeley, and head of the visual space perception laboratory, has looked into many aspects of virtual reality and vision. One of the biggest problems, he says, is an issue dubbed the “vergence-accommodation conflict” that can cause eye-strain – an effect also noted by Oculus Rift’s guidelines. The impact seems to be temporary, but Banks says longer-lasting effects are worth watching out for. “Everything I have seen suggests it is all short-term and you readjust after you take that headset off,” he said. “But I think it would be unwise for us to say there is no problem.”

But Banks believes many of the more alarming side effects listed for the devices are simply down to companies playing it safe. “I have seen some where they’re really just pretty ridiculous,” he says. One company offers a warning to pregnant women considering using a VR headset. “Why would that be? They are just being really, really cautious,” he says.

Sarah Sharples, professor of human factors at the University of Nottingham and president of the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors, said much more research was needed. She said: “We haven’t really yet got to the stage where people have been using virtual reality for prolonged periods of time – over, for example, periods of weeks or months – to identify with any clear certainty any long-term effects of virtual reality.”

Yet Sharples is cautious about linking known “effects” with “problems” – the evidence, she says is simply not available. “The key point is : there are effects, but are they detrimental?”

Another area of concern is the impact of virtual reality devices on human behaviour. Albert “Skip” Rizzo, director for dedical virtual reality at the University of Southern California believes there is plenty of work to be done. “Psychology as a science has been around for 100 years studying how humans behave and interact in the real world. I think we need almost as much time now to study how humans behave and interact in the virtual world and what those implications are,” he says. But as Rizzo is keen to point out, the benefits of virtual reality systems are myriad, revealing that they have been used in a host of therapeutic situations, from helping those living with post traumatic stress disorder to those suffering from depression. “I’m one of the biggest proponents that we can do things in VR that make a positive difference for people in the real world,” he said. “But if you accept that then you have got to accept that maybe this technology could have detrimental effects that are yet to be seen. I don’t think we should be hysterical about it, I think we should have watchful caution.”

As Sharples points out, VR companies themselves are keenly involved in probing the problems. But for now, she believes, common sense should prevail. Her advice echoes that of Oculus: stop using the headset if you feel unwell, don’t use for more than 30 minutes and make sure someone is keeping an eye on you.

“Absolutely there are potentially negative effects of using VR. The most important thing that we should do is just to be cautious and sensible” she says. “But we shouldn’t let that stop us from taking advantage of the massive potential this technology offers as well.”

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