The Realities of Virtual Reality

Story by January 27, 2016
Coy Yonce, of Mantis Digital Arts, encourages parents to research virtual reality tools before exposing your children to them.

Shortly after starting Mantis Digital Arts and beginning work on our first project in 2013, our team ordered an Oculus Rift developer kit. For those of you who are not familiar with the Oculus Rift, it is a virtual reality headset that allows you to be almost completely immersed in a game playing experience. You start a game, put on the headset, and all that you can see is the game. You do not see the room around you, you do not see your computer screen, you can’t even see your own nose. With the right setup, it can become even more immersive by ensuring that you have immersive sound, body movement, and controls as well. Ordering the dev kit was interesting for us as a game development studio, but it was also particularly interesting for us as a studio focused on developing games for children.

We spend hours talking about whether the games we’re designing are built in a way that kids can easily understand the controls, quickly begin to play, and, more importantly, learn anything from the experience. We love building immersive worlds in which kids can learn something, leave the game, and teach someone else what they learned. The appeal of virtual reality to us is that it has the ability to put a child somewhere that they’ve never been and will actually feel like they are there.

For example, imagine traversing an Egyptian pyramid, looking for ancient artifacts:

Virtual reality has already made it’s way into the hands of children and will continue to do so. In fact, there are several events that have taken place in the virtual reality market that are making this happen quickly.

Facebook + Oculus
Facebook, the company who now owns Oculus, announced last week that they are taking pre-orders for the first commercial version of the Oculus Rift. Of course, you’ll need about $599 USD plus the money to upgrade your desktop PC in order to use it. As such, this device is likely out of reach for most children – for the moment. However, having a company like Facebook investing in the technology means that more people will be paying attention and that we will, eventually, see lower costs for the consumer due to innovation in the technology itself.

Google Cardboard
There is another project called Google Cardboard that allows you to order a cardboard virtual reality headset that wraps around your mobile phone. You can then download apps on your phone that provide a virtual reality experience. You can even connect a game controller to your phone so that you can navigate these virtual reality experiences. You can get Google Cardboard for somewhere between $15 to $25 depending upon the version that you buy.

View-Master VR
Remember the View-Master Viewer? That handheld device that you load slides of still images into and then view them through the lenses of the device? View-Master has now released a virtual reality headset specifically targeted at kids. The starter pack comes with a demo of all Experience Packs available for the View-Master VR. These include dropping kids into space, historic destinations, and into various ecosystems full of animals and plant life. In fact, my daughter very much enjoyed seeing lions, elephants, and prairie dogs up close. The View-Master starter pack is $20 USD with the add-on experiences being somewhere between $10 to $15.

Almost every parent has a phone that can run the virtual reality experiences delivered through Google Cardboard and theView-Master VR. This is making it possible for kids to jump into virtual reality today. Unfortunately, this also means that many parents and educators are rushing to let their kids experience this new technology without really thinking about the consequences. When it comes to virtual reality and kids, we need to consider the following:

Eyesight Health
With normal eyesight, our brain is able to take the view of the world from each of our two eyes and merge them together so that we’re seeing those objects in front of us at the same distance and from the same angle. The brain pieces this together for us so that we know what to do with the information. Our brain has evolved to become very good at this. With virtual reality, our eyes are attempting to focus on the virtual object that could be far away or nearby in virtual space while also attempting to focus on the screen itself. This can cause eye strain and headaches. Some users have reported migraines as well.

There’s also the added strain that can come from a headset or app/game that is not designed well. This can cause the view of the user to not adjust smoothly as they move their head from side to side or swivel their body around. This is one reason that people tend to get nauseous while experiencing virtual reality.
For more in-depth coverage of how virtual reality can impact our short-term and long-term eyesight, check out these articles from Dan Crawley and Matt MacFarland.

Physical Health
Aside from the short-term effects associated with eyesight health, there’s also the potential for bodily harm if parents and educators are not careful with how children are experiencing virtual reality. People can get so immersed in the virtual experience that they grab, duck, swerve to move out of the way of an oncoming object, and even walk around. If kids are not in a stable position, then they may fall over, knock something over, or run into another kid. While this is easily avoided by ensuring that kids are either seated or otherwise stable, it still needs to be mentioned.

Mind/Body Dissonance
When experiencing an activity like a roller coaster in the physical world, a child is seeing the images associated with going up and down, through loops, going upside down, and moving quickly. They are also feeling the effects on their body associated with all of those movements. In virtual reality, this is not the case. Your brain is experiencing all of the images that should cause your body to also feel the effects of those movements, but the body is not. This disconnect between the signals to the brain from our eyesight and the signals to the brain from our body is another reason that users tend to feel uneasy while experiencing virtual reality. It is in direct contrast to our brain normally receives cognitive input for processing.

Psychological Presence
Children are masters of creativity and imagination. There are times where I’ve seen children so immersed in a book, a movie, or a game that they are completely oblivious to the physical world around them. When talking with these children hours later about the experience some of them have even stated that it seemed to be happening to them or somehow involved them. This inability to sometimes differentiate between the real world and the virtual worlds created for us by movies, games, and books is part of what it makes it possible for children to play so effectively. It is important to the work of being a child; however, we must also be careful with the amount of virtual experiences we throw upon children.

With virtual reality, the intent is to completely block out any real world stimuli. This is not true in any other medium of experiencing virtual worlds. As such, the immersion of a world or experience brought to us by a VR device has the potential to suck us in even further – to make us really forget that there is a real world out there beyond this headset. Nearly all signals reaching a virtual reality participants brain are generated by the virtual world before them. For children, this may not be a good thing if they already have a hard enough time differentiating between reality and imaginary worlds.

The goal of this article is not to say that virtual reality is bad for kids or that they shouldn’t experience it. The goal is to, instead, state that we need to think about the potential impacts to our children before letting them try virtual reality and, more specifically, letting them engage with virtual reality on a long-term basis. There are many examples of how virtual reality is providing positive impact to those with autism, specific eyesight problems, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. There are also tremendous benefits that can be realized in providing children a great way to really experience history, science, other cultures, and many other facets of education.
To learn more about how virtual reality can be beneficial, you can check out this article on Huffington Post, read about the work of Vivid Vision, and read this paper from Jacquelyn Ford Morie. In addition, the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University has been studying virtual reality since 2003 and is a good resource for information about both the positive and negative implications.

Thanks for reading!

About Coy Yonce

Coy Yonce is the Founder and CEO of Mantis Digital Arts, a UX/UI Designer for rich data applications at EV Technologies, and is an experienced product manager who has managed development and marketing for multiple technology products — some generating as much as 42 million annually. Follow him @mantisda.

Resources and Links:

Virtual Reality and Eyesight / Health

Virtual Reality and Kids/Education

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