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The health “reality” of the virtual world

Newspaper production teacher Brittany Tracy tries a VR headset program.

Brianna Watts

Newspaper production teacher Brittany Tracy tries a VR headset program.

Brianna Watts, Chief Editor

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The ability to be transported to another world may seem pretty enticing, but before jumping in head first, considering the health effects of this artificial trip may make you pull the brakes.

Using a Virtual Reality (VR) headset can cause damage to the surroundings of such users. With VR users’ eyes glued to a screen and their peripheral vision obscured, a bump or fall seems pretty inevitable. To prevent an injury or damage, manufacturers advise users to check their surroundings before using the headset and have someone supervise during use.

But besides possible damage to one’s house, unbeknownst to many, VR can damage different parts of the body as well.

According to Berkeley Optometry Professor Martin Banks, who studies visual perception in virtual environments, “There are a variety of potential issues, one is how we affect the growth of the eye, which can lead to myopia or nearsightedness. Looking at tablets, phones and the like, there’s pretty good evidence that doing near work can cause lengthening of the eye and increase the risk for myopia. We’re all worried that virtual reality might make things worse.”

In addition, numerous people who have used VR have complained of “eye strain, headaches and, in some cases, nausea” (cnn.com). Experts attribute those side effects to how VR affects the eye-brain connection.

According to cnn.com, “In real life, our eyes naturally converge and focus on a point in space, and our brain is so used to this that it’s coupled the two responses together. Virtual reality separates those, confusing the brain.”

Coined by scientists, the “vergence-accommodation conflict” is the change in how people look and interact in a virtual environment. Due to the projection onto the eyes seemingly feet away, when in reality it is only a few centimeters, the user interacts differently.

Scientists are currently not sure how serious the “vergence-accommodation conflict” might be, but behavioral neuroscientist Walter Greenleaf, who works with Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab and has studied VR in medical settings for over 30 years said, “We’re tricking the brain, and we don’t know the long-term effect of this.”

In order to limit prolonged exposure, manufacturers of Virtual Reality systems such as Oculus recommend a “10 to 15-minute break every 30 minutes, even if you don’t think you need it.” However, associate professor of research at the Interactive Media and Games Division of the University of Southern California Marientina Gotsis claims that is not based on much science.

“Most of what is on the market right now has little research behind it,” she says. “A lot of content is not well-made, with a lot of flickering things and objects that come at you too fast or too close, and that can produce eye strain.”

Makers of Daydream View, a VR headset by Google, also warn about pre-existing medical conditions, encouraging those “intoxicated, overly tired, or are suffering from a cold, headache, upset stomach, or other sicknesses” not to use VR. Also, Daydream View manufacturers warn that sharing your headset could lead to infection or irritation.

In addition, “Virtual reality content can also affect your perception of reality” (cnn.com). According to the health and safety page for Google’s Daydream View, “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. It can also, in some individuals, cause psychological reactions, including anxiety, fear, or even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

Gotsis believes that young children are most at risk when using VR, also stating that the younger the child, the less amount of exposure to VR they should have. In accord, Banks stated, “The research has been done primarily in young adults… so we don’t really know what is going to happen to a young child.” Some manufacturers include an age suggestion, but it is not consistent and not always included.

This year, Virtual Reality has become a learning tool at Decatur, being used in conjunction with technology teacher Dale Krantz’s Technology Education curriculum.

In his class, he uses VR for architectural purposes, saying, “It gives them a real-life perspective of what they [students] built.” With a 3D experience of the house, they are able to find their design flaws. Krantz has reported no negative side effects from his students but has received some complaints from faculty members.

Sophomore Jake Sughroue, a student who had the opportunity to use the headset in Krantz’s class stated, “During or after using [the VR headset] I didn’t get discomfort or anything like that.” He continued, “It was definitely worth it, after designing the house and everything.”

For educational purposes, and for a limited amount of time, Virtual Reality seems to be harmless. However, with limited research and potential health risks, it is best to limit your time. So, before you jump on the VR bandwagon, be sure to learn the risks and be aware of one’s surroundings and body limits.

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The health “reality” of the virtual world