Virtual Reality Is the Future ... of Inducing Nausea and Headaches

The long-awaited technology is here, with precious little information on how it will affect us physically and psychologically.

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After decades of hype, 2016 may actually be the year when virtual reality becomes, well, commercial reality. It's exciting news to tech lovers and new experience-chasers everywhere, may of whom will be at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this month. Just some of the products in the offing, per WSJ:

Samsung Electronics Co. and Google parent Alphabet Inc. recently have released virtual-reality headsets that use smartphones as the screen. And, in coming months, Sony Corp.,HTC Corp. and Facebook Inc.’s Oculus unit plan to release higher-end headsets that promise to immerse users in experiences that seem to be all around them. 

Meanwhile media giants like Disney and others are hard at work developing content for virtual reality.

It all sounds both highly seductive and potentially addicting, if people's incessant use of smartphones and computers are any indication. Perhaps even more than other technologies, some researchers are expressing concern about the potential harmful side-effects, both for physical and psychological health, of the use and over-use of virtual reality, which is a far more immersive experience. 

Users have already reported feelings of nausea, headache and eye strain after using headsets. And manufacturers are putting various warnings on their products. Adults should take at least 10-minute breaks from the technology, and some manufacturers recommend against children using virtual reality devices. (Good luck with that!) If users feel odd after using their device, they should avoid operating cars or heavy machinery, say manufacturers. And those are just the physical problems.

According to the WSJ:

Stanford University professor Jeremy Bailenson says his 15 years of research consistently have shown virtual reality can change how a user thinks and behaves, in part because it is so realistic.

“We shouldn’t fathom this as a media experience; we should fathom it as an experience,” said Prof. Bailenson, who also co-founded Strivr Labs Inc., which helps football players relive practice in virtual reality.

The psychological unknowns are prompting some backers to suggest setting standards for content. “We have to be very careful,” said Alex Schwartz, chief executive of maker Owlchemy Labs. “Scares in VR are borderline immoral.”

The potential psychological effects are not something the industry seems anxious to explore or discuss. Neither Facebook nor Samsung would comment on the topic. But a Samsung virtual reality engineer went on the record with the Journal, saying, “Just like any medium, [virtual reality] can have good effects and negative effects. I think people can get just as immersed in a book.”

As far as we know, books are not being published with warning labels about operating heavy machinery afterward.

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