The Risks of Virtual Reality

6 minute read

By HealthVersed

Over the past several years, virtual reality has followed social media into the mainstream, gaining popularity with each passing day. It’s an exciting time, and you can learn more by searching online.

Oculus, PlayStation, Meta, and HTC are being adopted by more and more households each year, but with added exposure comes added some risks. And virtual reality has definitely found plenty with the latter.

What is Virtual Reality?

Defined as the computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment, virtual reality should be relatively safe. It does offer a seemingly real or physical way for a person to interact through the use of special electronic equipment such as a helmet or gloves, but still, you aren’t really there.

The common items that come with a virtual reality system include a headset and two controllers, one for each hand. You become fully immersed into whichever experience you have selected. Plus, most systems can be used while seated or standing.

The Risks

That has not kept people from becoming seriously hurt through the use of virtual reality. Let’s take a look at some of the possible health risks that can come about from using virtual reality.

The Feeling of Being Sick

As with anything that places you in an alternate world, virtual reality can definitely make you feel nausea and sick to your stomach. The headset is a common reason for this, along with the fact that you are moving around without actually seeing where you are going.

One way virtual reality has worked around this is by allowing users to play slow-moving games or using teleportation for movement, which keeps users from suffering from the feeling of nausea. If you’ve never strapped into the VR world before, you are likely to feel these symptoms right away and experience them the first several times.

If you are able to withstand those pains early on, the more you use virtual reality systems, they should subside. If not, the virtual world is likely not for you.

In a World of One

Once you get through any side effects of playing with virtual reality, you need to be content with the feeling of one. That means you, and you alone, will be strapped in and playing the game by yourself despite there being people all around you. If you are playing a very interactive game, those in attendance are likely to get a kick out of watching you move, swing, punch, and kick yourself around the virtual world.

One way to keep this from being an issue is through the HTC Vive, as it features a passthrough camera that allows users to see around them and sensors to tell them when they are approaching something such as a wall. If you are a bit on the clumsy side and concerned over suffering such injuries, this is likely the route for you to take.

Who Put That There?

If you are playing virtual reality with family that consists of small children, always be on the lookout for items to appear without you having any idea. Kids love to leave things everywhere, and if you are locked in without a way to see what is being left at your feet, the likelihood of tripping and falling grows extremely high.

Once you have made sure there is plenty of clearance between yourself and those in attendance, you now have to make sure the area is cleaned up of any loose wires or gaming systems that could cause havoc. We’ve all seen those YouTube videos of someone landing on their backside after tripping while deep into virtual reality.

Think about keeping children away from the user and wires tied up as tightly as possible and put out of the way to avoid these issues. It’s also probably a very good idea to have plenty of space to engage with the virtual world.

Blinded by the Light

Growing up, there isn’t a person in the world that wasn’t told “back away from that television screen.” Heck, as I’m writing this right now I’m telling my own children that very same thing. So, what kind of impact will having a screen mere inches from your eyes cause to your vision?

I’m not optometrist but being so close to a screen for an extended period of time cannot be good. With virtual reality still in the infant stages, having hard, concrete facts to back up these claims are few and far between.

If you did talk to your local eye doctor about this, my guess is he would request several breaks after short periods of time to give your eyes a break. That might include 15 minutes away from virtual reality for every 30 minutes of time engaged with it.

Is It Safe for Kids?

That’s a very difficult question, because makers of virtual reality have geared experiences towards all ages, especially young kids and teens. Those would make it seemingly safe to play by anyone, but that doesn’t mean you should hand the keys to the kids and let them play for hours on end.

If adults need to limit usage because of possible vision, hearing, and other health issues, the warnings need to be heeded for children. Exposure time should be cut in half to avoid any kind of prolonged problems.

“It’s almost impossible to hold up something shiny in front of a young child and then say, ‘No, you can’t have this’,” Marientina Gotsis, an associate professor of research at the Interactive Media and Games Division of the University of Southern Cal said. “So, parents have to tell the older child that part of your responsibility is to take care of their younger siblings, so help them understand they shouldn’t use it. Children may not know how to communicate discomfort of any sort, such as visual discomfort or motion sickness, so you don’t want prolonged exposure on screen.”

Think About Keeping It PG

Remember back when you watched your first horror film and had to stay up for several nights after to avoid being “taken” by the bad guy? Now place yourself in a virtual reality horror experience and imagine the damage it could do.

Google’s Daydream View comes right out and warns users that “If the content is frightening, violent, or anxiety provoking, it can cause your body to react physically, including increasing your heart rate and blood pressure.” That’s an excellent warning for anyone diving deep into the world of virtual reality. You can never be too safe, especially when you are technically blind to the world while wearing the equipment.

Radiation Exposure

Putting an electronic system right on your head can lead to increased exposure to radiation. The systems make use of wireless technology, such as Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, to connect through your smartphone and computer, but that also brings with is harmful electromagnetic frequency radiation.

Previous studies have already led many to believe they are putting themselves at risk of radiation poisoning just through using their phone that close to their face and ear, but a VR headset amplifies that chance. Those long-term health risks include problems with the human reproductive system, a disruption in sleep patterns, and mood swings.

EMF have already been cited as a form of carcinogen, which is a substance capable of causing cancer in living tissue through previous studies.

Separating Virtual Reality from Reality

How many times as kids did you play a video game and really, truly believe you were immersed into the actions of that character? We all did it, but with virtual reality, you are even more prone to experiencing that actual feeling.

Once you strap the headset off and are back to the real world, how you continue moving on could be the key to overcoming any side effects. For many, VR is a way to put the real-world struggles to the side for at least a brief time and enjoy something new whether it be a different job, a vacation to a faraway place, or even just a stroll down the street as a completely new person.

How difficult can it be to separate the two worlds? A report by Science Focus stated in 2008, a Russian man was killed after a violent brawl ensued following the death of a virtual character from a game.

Temporary Brain Changes

How intense and real is virtual reality? A study back in 1999 when VR was still new by Michigan State University revealed that there is a temporary change to the brain from long-term use of the system. 15 years later, UCLA revealed in a study that people found themselves feeling like they were in “fully surrounding IMAX” after using virtual reality.

Imagine playing a game where you are a superhero, capable of leaping tall buildings, and stopping speeding cars. Now, step out of VR and into reality with those same thoughts going through your brain? Yes, you know you are not Superman, but your brain might not be able to tell the difference.

The same UCLA study indicated that rats in virtual worlds had the hippocampus part of their brains act very differently, with 60 percent of neurons being shut down. That part of the human brain has been linked to Alzheimer’s, strokes, and schizophrenia.