Virtual reality: Are health risks being ignored?

Virtual reality and augmented reality are gaining momentum as promising new technologies. The Samsung Gear VR headset unit sold out in many places over the holidays, and Facebook's Oculus Rift headset was flooded with pre-orders this month.

Despite growing proclamations that 2016 will be "The Year of VR," there has been a troubling lack of focus on the health and safety risks associated with strapping a large plastic brick over your eyes. If not properly addressed, this oversight could well come back to haunt the fledgling industry.

Sony Project Morpheus virtual-reality headset
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Properly done, headsets for virtual reality and augmented reality have the potential to transform our society and expand the field of human knowledge by changing how we learn, work, play and entertain ourselves. This breakthrough might even extend long-term human memory by creating new neural pathways and connections in the brain.

Virtual reality involves complete immersion in a fully imagined environment (think of a 360-degree video game). Augmented reality involves a see-through headset that allows users to simultaneously interact with their actual physical environment in the real world (think of product diagrams for repair technicians).

Such profound advances come with equally serious threats to our physical and emotional well-being. Consider that large percentages of people experience stress or anxiety after wearing a full occlusion headset for more than a few minutes. Other negative physical side effects can include severe eyestrain, nausea and motion sickness. Recent studies of lab rats at the UCLA Keck Center for Neurophysics have revealed negative side effects including "cybersickness" and abnormal patterns of activity in rat brains, including 60 percent of neurons that simply shut down in virtual reality environments.

People who are strapped into a fully occluded device cannot see anything around them, creating obvious physical dangers. In addition, their eyes must strain to focus on a pixelated screen that uses a single refractive optic element that inadequately addresses the optic issues with near-to-eye devices, and many headsets quickly become uncomfortable after a few minutes.

So, rather than creating a massive market opportunity, current headset makers may actually be laying the groundwork for a crippling consumer backlash. VR makers should take note of the recent problems when 16 hoverboards caught fire in 12 states, launching a federal investigation and causing to halt sales of the popular self-balancing scooter toys over the holiday season.

I began conducting field research into head-mounted displays (HMDs) for the U.S. military more than a decade ago. Since then, I've worked with many industrial and commercial clients, so I'm quite familiar with the technical and physical barriers facing the VR/AR industry.

For the technology to become woven into everyday life, people will need to feel safe and comfortable wearing HMDs for extended periods of time. Getting it right will require several key technical design elements.

  • Maintaining a large field of view (FoV): Humans have a stereoscopic field of view of 200 degrees, involving 140 degrees of binocular vision for depth perception, and 60 degrees for peripheral vision. Visual perception research shows that restricting this FoV decreases the user's sense of presence. At 35 degrees FoV (where many headsets are today), the user has the experience of merely "watching" the content. But at 60 degrees FoV or more, most users feel completely immersed in the displayed content and it becomes experiential. This is where the magic really starts to happen, when you can feel fully immersed in what you're watching. Having a large FoV is crucial to making VR seem experiential, and that's why more people are getting so excited emotionally.
  • Combining AR/VR capabilities: Headsets should automatically control the levels of translucency to the real world. This is the only way to allow for immersive VR applications and still mitigate motion sickness, by allowing users to anchor themselves to the real world. Humans have different levels of comfort staying connected to the real world, so it is necessary to have adjustability. For AR applications, varying the see-through capability is also needed to see the real world while viewing overlaid virtual images.
  • Delivering lightweight comfort: Any head-worn device such as headsets, headphones or sunglasses should weigh less than 4 ounces, or they will become uncomfortable after wearing them for short periods of time.
  • Providing natural eye optics: VR/AR headsets should mimic how human vision really works, to provide the most comfortable viewing experience for both 2D and 3D content. In physiological terms, headset makers need to solve this tension known as the "accommodation/convergence conflict," and eliminate eye strain.
  • Enabling a natural user interface: New formats for user controls can enable a more organic experience. For instance, a wrist-based interface allows users to control the device with human gestures such as rubbing their fingers together, waving their hands or rotating their wrists.
  • Allowing for customization: All people are unique, and so are their eyes. HMDs should be adjustable to match each user's personal comfort level. Some adaptable features include inter-pupillary distance; independent eye focus; and variable transmission lenses for AR and VR functionality.

Our society is on the verge of a major breakthrough due to widespread adoption of virtual reality and augmented reality. But to progress beyond the current hype, the goal of this new communication tool should be immersion – the ability to connect to the human brain at a deeply emotional level.

Success will require hardware developers to focus on the human-machine interface, and how humans actually sense and process information, and to provide a comfortable viewing experience. If most early adopters of VR/AR have a harmful or negative experience, the industry could be setting itself up for a major setback that will be hard to recover from. Proper standards and procedures must be established now for both hardware and software manufacturers, before it is too late.

Commentary by Doug Magyari, CEO of IMMY Inc., a VR headset manufacturer. A serial entrepreneur, Magyari has spent the past 20 years conducting immersive and augmented reality training simulations for U.S. military agencies and aerospace firms. He has also spent the past decade developing proprietary augmented and virtual headsets that incorporate a new set of comfort and safety features.

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