The Potential Health Risks of VR Headsets and the Quest to Fix Them.

by Sean 2,605 views0

Virtual Reality is awesome, however placing a glowing screen full of magnified pixels right in front of our eyes for prolonged periods of time can take it’s toll on the eyesight.

I have been following a recent group discussion on the LinkedIn “AR Glasses” group about the “Effects of light field displays on young people” and I’ll have to admit, it really brings up some interesting and concerning questions about VR HMD headset usage.

Some of them being:.

  • Stereo mismatch – Improper stereoscopic rendering in 3D content causes serious eye strain. I have downloaded quite a few apps that were obviously not tested thoroughly before release. While much of this is a responsibility of the content creators, the device manufacturers can also take steps to both, include features that allow for easy adjustment, as well as implement more strict approval requirements for content they distribute via their platforms.

    Proper device settings is also important. If you have ever tried to fire up an Oculus DK 2 for the first time, you will remember how much time it took getting it configured and adjusting settings. While having options to customize the experience is a nice feature, there is also a lack of simple usability that tells you when everything is done right so as to not cause unnecessary eye strain.

    Sure, the developers understand all the technical settings jargon, but the casual users of the upcoming consumer devices will definitely need more user friendly solutions to both adjust settings and to protect from eye damage.

  • Retinal radiation – Focussed UV light from display screens can cause a certain level of radiation to enter the eye. In some studies, where the source of the light is within 1mm, this can cause minor damage. The very real and unknown potential for eye cancer caused by retinal radiation from HMD’s needs further research.

    Young children with growing, underdeveloped eyes are much more susceptible to radiation damage and are also a target demographic for VR devices, so much more attention should be placed on how to protect them.

    A great paper on the subject from the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection can be downloaded here. Also check out: Schowengerdt and Seibel /True 3-D scanned voxel displays using single or multiple light sources

  • Pixel Depth – In real life, we focus on objects using both eyes at different perspectives. Cheaper VR headsets, such as a single mobile screen via google Cardboard, offers a limited ability to allow the user to focus on near and far objects because they are the same pixels, at the same distance, on a flat screen.

    This leads can lead to…

  • Sim Sickness – Simulator sickness is thought to result from a conflict between the visual signal from the virtual image in the display screen and the real physical positioning and head motion of the user. The disconnect creates confusion in the brain and causes users to feel nauseous.

    A lot of work is being done by headset manufacturers to prevent this from happening (Oculus is doing a great job) but we still have a long way to go. The flip side is that some people just get motion sickness, and that shouldn’t be the fault of the device. It’s just the price you pay for being in VR.

The 30 Minute Rule

A study on Science Direct discussing the effects of HMD (head mounted displays) suggests that, while they believe that there is no negative effects of HMD devices, interestingly, they still recommend a 30 minute usage limit.

After having spent considerable time wearing different VR headsets, I can attest to the need to take regular breaks to let my eyes rest. I don’t usually get sick, but my eyes definitely start to burn and get tired. Since I also wear glasses, this creates an additional magnification layer that plays havoc on my vision, so taking breaks for me a crucial.

New Research

Stanford researchers have recently unveiled a VR headset developed to reduce both eye fatigue and nausea.

It uses a light-field stereoscope technology that:

“Solves that disconnect by creating a sort of hologram for each eye to make the experience more natural. A light field creates multiple, slightly different perspectives over different parts of the same pupil. The result: you can freely move your focus and experience depth in the virtual scene, just as in real life.”

Using VR to Treat Vision Problems

The future of VR HMD’s is bright (pun intended) and while there is plenty of potential for adverse physical effects, there are also plenty of amazing opportunities to become a tool for correcting vision problems.

A startup called Vivid Vision offers a software package that uses the Oculus and game mechanics to treat sufferers of Lazy Eye. There is a great interview on Twitch where they discuss the product with Leap Motion.

Everybody is Doing It

In summary, we all know that certain things are bad for us, but we do them anyway. Looking at the sun, mechanical bull riding, smoking, junk food, blue alcoholic drinks (long story), holding radiation emitting mobile devices to our heads, microwaving food… so in reality, it’s not going to stop us from experiencing totally amazing, immersive VR.

One thing to keep in mind however, is that everything needs moderation, so we should also take precautions to both be aware of potential health risks of VR and to know our limits.

We also need to be aware that our children will be growing up with this technology and will be the real victims of any of it’s negative effects. It is our job to educate them and keep them safe.

Will there be warning labels on VR headsets in the future? Probably. The complaints, lawsuits and regulations will happen and as a result, I suspect that there will be warning labels, just like on any other consumer product that “might” cause harm with misuse,

In the meantime, let’s have fun, but stay aware, keep researching and stay safe.

Sean

Sean Earley is the Executive Editor of AR/VR Magazine, Virtual Reality Consultant at INSCALE, an author, blogger, musician, artist and virtual reality freak. He Loves coffee, guitars and making cool stuff.

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