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  • Writer's pictureMark Cullens

VR health concerns: motion sickness to safety

Updated: Jan 29

Understanding the Basics of VR and Health

Virtual reality (VR) is an immersive technology that can deliver a broad spectrum of experiences, from realistic to fantastical, via digital simulation. Known as immersive content, the user's senses of sight, sound, even touch, are transported into a different environment, effectively blurring the line between physical and virtual realms. VR applications extend beyond entertainment and video games - they are also utilized in education, professional training, healthcare and therapy among others - thus the impact on a user's health cannot be ignored. As VR technology moves into mainstream use, health professionals have raised concerns about the potential impacts on both the physical and psychological well-being of users. Even as more therapeutic applications for the technology emerge, some users have reported unwelcome side-effects, such as eye strain, headaches, or even the more severe effects of VR-induced motion sickness.

Man using vr headset
Good Posture

Potential Risks Associated with Virtual Reality

Virtual reality, with its blend of real and simulated worlds, brings forth a set of potential risks while providing unique experiences to the user. The promise of sensory immersion often overshadows the potential physical and mental health hazards that surround its usage. From induction of motion sickness and vision problems to the risk of physical injuries due to lack of awareness of the real-world surroundings, the dangers are manifold. Additionally, there's the more elusive concern about psychological effects due to prolonged use of VR, which is not yet fully understood and continues to be a focus of extensive research.Consequently, one of the most prominent risks tied with VR technology is its impact on the user's vision. Prolonged exposure to VR headsets can strain the eyes, causing discomfort and potentially leading to more serious conditions such as virtual reality induced myopia. It's worth noting that VR devices also have the potential to cause addiction, another significant risk factor. The immersive nature of VR, providing powerful, stimulating experiences, can lead some users to develop a dependence on these virtual experiences while neglecting real-world interactions and responsibilities.

The Impact of VR on Vision

The use of Virtual Reality (VR) technology presents a unique user experience with immersive content. With its 360-degree spherical view, it allows users to engage in an artificial environment that feels astonishingly real. By design, this has the potential to impact vision significantly. The graphics and intense visuals, paired with the dynamic movements, can pose challenges to visual comfort and eye health. The impact largely stems from the prolonged exposure to VR screens that are held close to the user's eyes. Some users report symptoms of eye strain, blurred vision, dry eyes, and even diplopia, or double vision, following extended VR use. This is largely due to the vergence-accommodation conflict, a visual phenomenon induced by the mismatch between the point of focus and the perceived depth in VR. This incongruity places stress on the eyes, which could potentially lead to long-term vision issues if not properly addressed.

Detailing VR-Induced Motion Sickness

While most users revel in the novelty and excitement of virtual reality (VR), for some, the experience is not as thrilling due to motion sickness, otherwise known as 'cybersickness'. This condition is characterized by a sense of discomfort and nausea, triggered by a disconnection between visual input and physical motion. When you move around in VR, your eyes perceive motion, while the rest of your body doesn't, causing a sensory mismatch that can lead to symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, and fatigue. It is also interesting to note that VR-induced motion sickness doesn't just affect those who are generally prone to motion sickness. Factors such as the quality of the VR, the type of content, duration of use, and even a person's gender can influence the likelihood of experiencing cybersickness. It's important to remember though, that not all users of VR will experience these symptoms, and for those that do, they are usually self-limiting and subside soon after VR use is stopped. The industry is constantly developing ways to lessen the impact of VR-induced motion sickness. Things like improving motion tracking and visual display, limiting the duration of exposure, and gradually increasing the intensity of VR content can all help reduce the likelihood of experiencing symptoms. But until these solutions are more universally implemented, it's important for users to be aware of the potential risks and to take measures to ensure their comfort and safety while enjoying VR technology.

Dancer Blurred by Motion
Motion Blur

The Psychological Effects of Prolonged VR Use

Virtual Reality (VR) offers an immersive experience that has transformed the gaming and entertainment spheres. Users can escape to different worlds, live out exciting adventures, and even simulate real-life experiences—all within the confines of their own home. However, this deep immersion can have psychological implications when the technology is used for prolonged periods, as the boundary between the real and the virtual world may begin to blur. Research has highlighted potential issues such as anxiety, depression, and disassociation from continued VR use. Some users report feelings of unease during and after exiting the virtual environment, possibly due to the stark contrast between virtual and physical reality. Similarly, some users have reported experiencing a phenomenon dubbed "derealization," a sense of disconnection from reality wherein the physical world feels foreign and unreal. More studies are needed to investigate the full psychological impact of VR, particularly due to its increasing ubiquity in everyday life.

How VR Can Lead to Physical Injuries

As the popularity and accessibility of virtual reality (VR) technology surge worldwide, users find themselves spending more time in these alternate digital universes. It is noted that while the immersive experience provided by VR technology is unparalleled, it can also be the cause of some unprecedented physical injuries. The immersive nature of VR often makes users lose the awareness of their actual physical surroundings, as the technology effectively tricks the brain into believing it's somewhere else. Tangible elements in the room, obstacles, furniture, or even other individuals become unseen risks that may lead to bumps, falls, sprains, and even serious injuries. Studies have also pointed out that the use of VR devices can often cause users to execute forceful movements, sudden turns, and rapid gestures in response to stimuli in the VR world. Such erratic movements, repeated over time, could potentially lead to regular muscular discomfort and strain, joint stress, or exacerbate pre-existing conditions. Notably, neck and back strains are quite common due to extended VR sessions due to incessant head movements or staying in awkward, static positions for prolonged periods. The physical complexities of VR interactions necessitate users to be more conscious about their health and well-being while indulging in this mind-altering technology.

The Relationship Between VR and Sleep Disorders

Virtual reality (VR) has the ability to engross users in an alternate digital world, presenting scenarios that can heavily manipulate the body's natural sleep patterns. Studies have shown an increase in sleep disturbances among heavy VR users. The light emitted from VR devices, notably blue light, can have significant impacts on the circadian rhythm - our natural sleep-wake cycle. Exposure to this light, especially before bed, can suppress the secretion of melatonin, the hormone responsible for sleep regulation. This disruption can lead to difficulty falling asleep, erratic sleep patterns, and overall poor sleep quality. Furthermore, the intense cerebral engagement required while navigating virtual landscapes can trigger heightened mental activity. This increased brain function can make it difficult for users to wind down and transition into a state of rest, potentially leading to insomnia. Additionally, individuals who use VR shortly before bedtime may find that their dreams are affected, often tending towards the more vivid and lucid. The resulting broken and restless sleep can impact their overall well-being and productivity. As VR becomes increasingly prevalent, understanding its impact on sleep becomes a vital health concern.

VR and the Potential for Addiction

The potential for addiction in using Virtual Reality (VR) technology is a pertinent concern that should not be sidelined. The captivating world of VR, with immersive content and interactive experiences, employs mechanics synonymous with those found in addictive gaming scenarios. Users can lose themselves in fantastical settings and engaging narratives that are meticulously designed to keep them coming back for more. The 'hook' seen in traditional video games is amplified in VR, elevating the chances of habitual and potentially addictive use. Moreover, this virtual escapism can often be more appealing to users than their real-world interactions and responsibilities. The strong sense of presence achieved in VR platforms can lead to intense emotional connections and experiences, further driving the desire to keep returning to the virtual environment. This displacement of reality can foster reliance on VR for emotional gratification, enhancing the risk of addiction. In extreme cases, overuse can lead to systemic physical and mental health issues linked with other forms of digital addiction.

Addressing the Debate Around VR and Children's Health

The impact of Virtual Reality (VR) on children's health has been a subject of continuous debate in recent years. Advocates often highlight the educational opportunities and cognitive skill development fostered by VR technology. It's not uncommon for educators and parents to offer praise for VR's ability to offer experiential learning, making complex ideas more understandable by bringing them to life. Additionally, VR supports the development of spatial ability, a requisite skill in STEM fields. On the contrary, critics underscore the possible negative health effects associated with prolonged VR use. The detachment from the real world for extended periods may potentially affect a child's physical health and social abilities. Long-term exposure might lead to vision problems, motion sickness, or even a decrease in physical activity. Critics also argue that children, because of their developing cognitive and perceptual systems, could be more susceptible to these effects. Concerns about the impact of VR on children's sleep patterns and potential addictive behaviors continually pave the way for ongoing research and debate.

Boy using VR Headset
Boy using Oculus Quest

Promoting Safe and Healthy Use of VR Technology

Immersive content in Virtual Reality (VR) technology captivates its users, transporting them into a new world of experiences unachievable in real life. Despite all the fascination, it is critical for users to employ this technology safely and maintain a healthy interaction with it. Understanding its implication on physical and mental well-being will ensure users can balance enjoyment and health while spending time in virtual environments. Safety protocols such as taking regular breaks and limiting daily usage can greatly ameliorate some of the health risks associated with VR. For instance, to prevent eyesight damage, users are advised to rest their eyes periodically in between sessions. Regular body movement outside of VR, assures prevention of sedentary lifestyle ailments. As VR continues to gain popularity, the need to prioritize safe and responsible VR practices becomes more pressing than ever.

What are the basics of VR and its relation to health?

VR, or Virtual Reality, immerses users into a simulated environment. While it can be an enjoyable experience, it can also have effects on health such as vision disruptions, motion sickness, and even psychological implications if used for extended periods.

What are the potential risks associated with virtual reality?

The risks of VR can include eye strain, motion sickness, physical injuries due to unawareness of the real-world environment while immersed in VR, psychological effects, and potential addiction.

How does VR impact vision?

Extended use of VR has been linked to digital eye strain, blurred vision, and other vision-related issues. Users may experience discomfort, dryness, and even potential long-term effects on vision if safety guidelines aren't followed.

Could you explain VR induced motion sickness?

VR induced motion sickness, also known as cyber sickness, can occur when there's a disconnect between what the user sees in VR and their actual bodily motion. Symptoms may include dizziness, nausea, and imbalance.

What are the psychological effects of prolonged VR use?

Extended VR use can result in disorientation, anxiety, and in some cases, depersonalization. It can also contribute to addictive behaviors as users may seek to escape reality.

How can VR lead to physical injuries?

VR can lead to physical injuries when users unknowingly interact with real-world objects while immersed in the virtual environment. This can result in bumps, falls, or more serious accidents.

Can VR cause sleep disorders?

Some research suggests that intense use of VR, especially before sleep, can lead to difficulty falling asleep or disruptions in sleep patterns.

Is there a possibility of developing an addiction to VR?

Yes, there's a potential risk of addiction to VR as it provides an appealing escape from reality. This is a growing area of research among psychologists.

Are there any debates around VR and children's health?

Yes, there's ongoing debate about the effects of VR on children's health. Concerns largely revolve around the impact on vision, potential for physical injury, and the effects of prolonged usage on psychological well-being.

How can we promote safe and healthy use of VR technology?

To promote safe VR use, it's important to take regular breaks, set up a safe physical space for use, monitor children's usage, and avoid using VR if you are feeling unwell or have pre-existing conditions that could be worsened by VR, such as severe motion sickness or certain vision disorder

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Mark Cullens is the founder of Digital Energy Group Ltd and brings 30 years of experience in marketing leadership. Working with immersive technologies in the real world of Universities, Local Authorities and Colleges gives him a practical insight into the unique benefits and challenges of using VR and AR.

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