What parents need to know about virtual reality
Posted February 9
What comes to mind when you hear or see the term virtual reality? Another niche gimmick to boost sales of home entertainment equipment, like the now-defunct 3D TV? Or maybe it excitedly recalls Star Trek's famous holodeck, the leisure space on the starship Enterprise where crew members escape in a room that instantly re-creates any person and place they wish?
Today's virtual reality isn't quite that slick yet, but the technology was intriguing enough for Minneapolis college student Jacob McDonald to head down to VR Junkies, a virtual reality arcade just outside the Twin Cities on a Wednesday evening.
“Some buddies of mine had tried in-store demonstrations at Best Buy and they said it was awesome,” McDonald said.
Like a lot of people who are new to the latest VR craze, McDonald wasn’t sure what to expect when he put on a headset at the arcade. “I didn’t think it would be that different from a video game.”
Now, McDonald says, he understands the hype. An avid video gamer, he lived a sci-fi fan’s fantasy through Lightblade, a game at VR Junkies closely resembling a light saber fight from “Star Wars.”
“I didn’t expect it to feel so real. That was the main thing that surprised me,” McDonald said.
His reaction is not unique and partly explains why last year was dubbed “the year of virtual reality,” prompting projections that the industry would top $22.8 billion by 2019. The Wall Street Journal reported that investors have so far put about $10 billion into the developing technology.
While it’s mostly being used for gaming at the moment, scientists and professionals from a variety of industries see VR as having potential to revolutionize life as Americans know it: VR has proven its potential for treating drug addictions, PTSD, autism symptoms, as well as revolutionizing surgical techniques and training and space exploration.
But the wealth of possibility brings with it concerns for some experts questioning when is the technology safe for children, whether or not VR may be addictive, and how some VR content may affect viewers of any age.
For parents looking to catch up on what VR is and what it may mean for their families, we spoke to experts to answer some questions surrounding a technology that immerses its users in a graphically generated environment.
What exactly is VR?
Virtual reality came to the mainstream in 2016, but the technology is hardly new. According to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s National Center for Supercomputing Applications, VR was first developed in the 1950s by electrical engineer Douglas Engelbart. A former radar technician in the U.S. Navy, Engelbart wanted to make interacting with a computer possible without learning complex programming languages. For that, he knew computers needed a way to project graphically represent data onto a screen so anyone could understand it.
With the Cold War in full swing, the military began using Engelbart’s ideas to make radar systems work faster and develop realistic simulators to train pilots and tank drivers. The U.S. Army still uses cutting-edge VR today to train soldiers for combat.
In the 1990s, video game companies Sega and Nintendo each developed VR headsets, but both efforts failed due to glitches and graphics that limited games to a black and red color scheme.
Today, computer graphics have improved dramatically, which makes the experience far more realistic and immersive. That’s part of the reason some think the excitement around VR is different this time around — the high-resolution graphics and the support of Silicon Valley make VR much more likely to revolutionize many industries beyond gaming.
In medicine, doctors and scientists at universities across the country are developing a potpourri of VR therapies to help people with pain management, therapy to treat debilitating phobias and phantom limb pain. Researchers in California and the United Kingdom have also explored VR’s capability to assess brain damage and aid in rehabilitation.
For now, VR is mostly dominated by gaming, with a variety of apps, along with console platforms like Playstation, offering a roster of VR games. But the headsets can also view content like YouTube videos, as well.
Current VR is basically divided into two camps: Passive and interactive. Some VR “experiences,” like movies and YouTube videos, are considered passive, where the user sits back and observes a 360-degree view. Other VR options require additional equipment (usually hand controls and sensors) to allow users to interact with their surroundings created by the program.
Apps like VRSE allow users to watch movies, documentaries and news programs that have been shot and designed for VR headsets to reduce eyestrain, and musicians like Jack White and Paul McCartney have released VR productions of concerts and songs that put fans on stage with the performers.
What researchers don’t know
There’s no definitive evidence yet that VR harms children or impacts their development, but researchers say there’s a lot they don't know, yet. This is likely why VR headset manufacturers, like Sony and Oculus, have implemented a self-imposed age restriction, usually 12 or 13 years old.
“It is early days and we really are trying to be conscious of health and safety,” Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe said at the 2015 Code Conference. He added that 13 “made sense,” because that’s the legal threshold for when many children are allowed to adopt other forms of technology, like social media, into their daily lives.
According to the Advisory Group of Computer Graphics in the United Kingdom, VR can cause significant eyestrain and visual stress at any age as it employs stereoscopic 3D graphics, which gives the user the illusion of depth and dimension. However, these images can be difficult for the brain and eyes to process, and can result in “vergence-accommodation conflict,” or when the eyes cannot align their focus on an object.
But beyond physical considerations, some researchers are still figuring out how VR impacts developing minds and cognition.
Jeremy Bailenson and his team at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab are studying the potential impacts of VR on children’s lives.
“There isn't much published research in this area, but what we do know from our preliminary research is that children respond to the world and the characters in a similar manner to the real world, as if they are real,” he said.
In a 2009 study Bailenson conducted, elementary school age children were given VR helmets and their digital doppelgangers swam with orcas. A week later, the children had incorporated the experience as memory, certain that they remembered it happening in the real world, not virtual reality.
Bailenson said that while research dating back as far as the 1990s has consistently found that children around age 5 are able to distinguish fantasy from reality in television, “immersive VR may make it more challenging for children to distinguish fiction from reality. VR creates the illusion of being surrounded by the content, which can blur the lines between real life and the virtual world.”
There may be serious implications for how VR impacts children’s memory and their perception of real life, he said, but more research is needed before any conclusions are drawn.
VR and digital addiction
Much has been written by psychologists and doctors about internet addiction and how reward-based media like video games and the nearly ubiquitous access to online pornography can become full-blown addictions for people prone to dependencies.
But internet addiction experts aren't sure yet if or how VR will play into the equation, partially because so little research has been done on it.
"VR is a question for us because it's not just interactive, but immersive, so it has the potential to be even more seductive for people who are prone to addiction," said Michael Rich, a Harvard University pediatrician and founder of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. "But I don't know that it will push a bunch more people into internet addiction. If they're susceptible, there are just too many other ways to be exposed."
While there’s no scientific evidence that VR itself is addictive, some experts theorize that VR’s immersive qualities may amplify digital experiences that some experts consider addictive, such as gaming or online pornography.
"If anything, it's a more intense 'high,' if you will, rather than something that will recruit more people into this problem," Rich said. "I don't think this is going to push more people over that edge into internet addiction."
Theoretically, VR may deepen the confusion between fantasy and reality that can, in some teens and adults, lead to digital addiction.
“It's the longing for an alternative reality where reward systems are both short and long term, rewarding the brain and giving a sense of accomplishment, which triggers all kinds of happy emotions and reactions. The player is able to be 'their best self,' or a version of themselves they're not able to be in real life,” said Melissa Meyer, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cape Town's Center of Criminology and a video game and VR enthusiast. “VR simply allows the sensation of immersing in one's virtual fantasy world to be stronger.”
Meyer cited PokemonGo as an example in an article for Huffington Post.
“(PokemonGo) enhances reality rather than replacing it with a completely fabricated environment,” Meyer wrote. “These people will begin to blur the boundaries between real, augmented and virtual reality. Their real world life may suffer as a result.”
The suspension of reality may seem absurd for anyone who’s seen clunky early demonstrations of some VR experiences. But not all VR experiences are equal, and VR’s immersive qualities can aid in the suspension of disbelief. Some test users have reported that the situations become highly realistic very quickly.
“VR is more than just another iteration. It doesn’t just change the frame. VR erases it. It allows us to exist inside the environment,” Wired’s Peter Rubin wrote. “With VR, you’re not watching a scene anymore. You’re inhabiting it.”
Some VR systems, like the HTC Vive and Oculus sets, are equipped with sensors that detect motion, which translates into the VR experience. While that sounds complicated, the sensors are essentially just cameras that constantly take pictures to make the experience as lifelike as possible.
Recently, Vice Media’s technology website Motherboard and a researcher from the University of California, Davis, discovered that it’s relatively easy to pull images from Oculus sensors. Perhaps this wouldn’t be of significant concern to the average gamer or VR user, except that Oculus is owned by Facebook, a company with a track record of taking ownership of photos shared on its site and be used elsewhere and of conducting social experiments on unknowing users.
For some time now, Facebook has been developing facial recognition and artificial intelligence features for its site to change how users search and use photos on the site and, potentially, from other applications it owns, like Instagram or Oculus.
That could be good or bad, depending on how and if the photos are collected and used in the future — perhaps as targeting data for advertising, or simply making it impossible for anyone to disappear in a crowd. If the idea of that makes you nervous, a piece of tape over the VR motion sensor when it's not in use should do the trick.
For its part, Oculus has responded to customer privacy concerns in the past year, saying that it does not sell user data or share it with Facebook.
Online privacy may or may not be a primary concern for individual VR users — a 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that the number of Americans who considered NSA surveillance acceptable or unacceptable were evenly split — but it’s important for parents to understand the risk if they are concerned about one of the world's biggest companies having access to candid pictures of their children and families.