Virtual reality games provide players experiences that seem real but are not. They can also cause people to become sick or confused, a condition known as cybersickness. Taller and younger people seem more prone to cybersickness that shorter and older people.
Did you ever ride a roller coaster when you were little and your parents took you to Kiddieland on a Sunday afternoon? It crept along at 5 miles an hour, went around twice, and climbed to a grand height of 10 or maybe 15 feet. Still, you squealed in terror and delight. It was low-tech fun for a kid.
Now think back to last summer. Did you willingly allow yourself to be shackled into a streamlined speed machine and hurtled along thousands of feet of curved steel track so the world’s tallest/fastest/steepest coaster could soar to nosebleed heights, turn you upside down three times, reach a hundred miles an hour, and give you 6.3 seconds of free-falling weightlessness? It may not be cool to scream or clench the safety bar in a death grip anymore, but it’s still about kids and fun.
Technically, they’re both roller coasters, but the technological difference between what you rode then and now is vast. A similar gulf exists between video games you grew up playing and the new breed of games known as virtual reality. This technology lets you experience a world that seems real, but is actually created by a computer. To play, you wear a special helmet fitted with earphones and a screen in front of each eye. Everything you see on these screens is computer-generated, and your movements determine how the computer will react.
For example, when you turn your head, the scene changes, or when you play acoustic electric guitar, you can find your hands shaken following the melody. When you put on special gloves and move your hands around, the computer makes objects on the screen move around. It feels like being somewhere you really aren’t and doing things you aren’t doing.
Up to now, you could find games with this kind of technology only at video arcades. But the companies that make video games have been developing versions that can be used at home.
- Real-Life Practices
Virtual reality can be a high-tech toy, but it also can be a high-tech tool. Surgeons, for example, use it as a tool for learning how to perform difficult operations. It gives them something close to real-life practice before they ever touch an actual patient. University of Washington researchers tested a virtual-reality simulator to train doctors to perform sinus operations, which are tricky because a surgeon must be careful not to penetrate delicate skull bones protecting the brain. Another simulator, developed by scientists at the Medical College of Georgia and the Georgia Institute of Technology, lets doctors perform virtual eye surgery, seeing how it “feels” to cut into eye tissue with a scalpel and remove a lens. In the past, surgeons could practice this procedure only on animals or cadavers.
Virtual reality is also used by therapists to help people overcome their fears. At Emory University and Georgia Tech, researchers are working together on a virtual-reality project with patients who suffer from irrational fears called phobias. People with acrophobia, for instance, have a terrible fear of heights. Therapists help these people by using virtual reality to “take them” to higher and higher locations, such as balconies, elevators, and bridges, so they can slowly become more comfortable. People with phobias can more effectively challenge their fears in a three-dimensional world that seems real before tackling them in the real world.
Virtual-reality therapy can be applied to people who are afraid of flying in airplanes or driving in cars–first put them in virtual airplanes or on virtual highways.
Researchers continue to uncover new uses for virtual technology: teaching people with autism and attention deficit disorder to concentrate, helping those with Parkinson’s disease walk more normally without using drugs that have side effects, designing office space for people who use wheelchairs.
While virtual reality can both help and entertain people in many ways, some people have problems with it. Recall the wild roller coaster ride described at the beginning of this article. It’s not for everyone. Some people are going to get off and feel bad the rest of the day, swearing they’ll never get back on.
Just as with roller coasters, some people become sick or confused after a virtual-reality experience. There are names for it. Cybersickness. Cyber side effects. Simulator sickness. Many of its symptoms feel like motion sickness: headaches, nausea, vomiting, sweating, and fatigue.
Some people are disoriented after they take off the equipment, unsure of where they are. After wearing a virtual-reality headset for a few hours, one woman poured soda from a can into her eye instead of her mouth. Her perception was distorted because images she was seeing right in front of her eyes were actually coming from miniature video cameras mounted a few inches above her eyes, on top of her headset. Her brain had readjusted to where her eye position seemed to be.
Hours or days after using virtual-reality equipment, a small number of people have flashbacks. Things around them suddenly seem unreal and unfamiliar. One day after using a flight simulator, a pilot had a flashback while driving his car. He had to stop, get out of the car, and walk around touching things to make sure they were real.
If you’ve never experienced virtual reality, how do you know if you’re one of the people who will get “cybersick”? So far, researchers can’t predict who will be affected. Just as you don’t know until you first get on that Tilt-a-Whirl if you’re sensitive to circular motion, you don’t know how your brain will react to the conflict between a computer-generated visual scene and your head in motion until you actually experience virtual reality.
Scientists, however, have made some observations. Benn Konsynsky, a researcher at Emory University, has noticed in his work that taller people seem to have more problems with cyber effects, although he can’t explain why. Robert Kennedy, a psychologist who has studied cybersickness, noted that younger people were more likely to have symptoms. This is ironic. Who is more likely to spend three hours a day playing video games–a kid or an adult? It poses a real challenge for the engineers and the marketing staff at video game companies.
- Other Effects
Aside from the effects of cybersickness, there are other possible health concerns, such as eyestrain, joint injury from wearing the bulky equipment, injuries from falls, and even addiction to the exciting virtual world.
Many side effects can be prevented when companies take care in designing their equipment. When players can see around the screens in front of their eyes, catching a glimpse of their feet or objects off to the side, their brain realizes that what’s on the screen is not real. Speeding up the technology to reduce the time lag between what you do and what you “see” also helps. A lot depends on how the game is set up. Unfortunately, the more exciting and active a game is, the more likely it is to make people sick because of the quick changes in how and where the body appears to be moving. There’s a fine line between a game that won’t make you ill and one that’s so boring it puts you to sleep.
One clear fact stands out, though: Using virtual reality equipment for a shorter period of time reduces the chance of side effects. If you’re going to try a game, get off the system after a little while and see how you feel. Try walking around, and have something to eat or drink. If you enjoyed yourself, congratulations. You’re riding the big coaster now.