Virtual reality (VR) is a new technology revolutionizing healthcare, education, real estate, and entertainment. VR headsets present users with scenic three-dimensional (3D) simulations of real or imagined environments.
However, there are concerns over the use of VR technology. Most concerns revolve around eye and brain health.
Using a VR headset can affect the interaction between your brain and eyes, forcing the brain to process visual information differently.
Most people report eye strain and discomfort after spending time in virtual environments. This is because eye muscles get fatigued as users try to focus on the immersive images on the VR headset screen.
Potential Effects of VR on Eyes (According to Research)
Although VR is a new technology with limited studies, existing evidence points to the following potential effects:
Eye Strain and Fatigue (Asthenopia)
Frequent blinking reduces as you focus on a VR screen several millimeters from the eye.1
Research shows prolonged exposure to high-resolution VR environments without normal blinking can cause digital eye strain (DES) and fatigue.2
Manufacturers of VR devices are improving aspects like resolution and lens designs to mitigate this problem. They’ve also tried to reduce bulkiness, as a device’s weight puts a lot of pressure on facial muscles and eye sockets, causing eye strain.
In addition to eye strain, reduced blink rate when using VR headsets prevents proper moisturization and lubrication, causing dry eyes and eye pain. The heat emitted from the headsets also contributes to dry eyes.
Research shows contact lens wearers are more likely to experience dryness when using VR headsets.3 Fortunately, popular models like the Oculus Quest by Meta, Inc. can be fitted with prescription lenses to eliminate the need to wear contacts.
Virtual Reality Sickness and Dizziness
Virtual reality sickness (cybersickness) is a type of motion sickness brought about by exposure to VR environments. Virtual reality alters your eye’s depth perception (how you see things and perceive the space around you), which can cause motion sickness.
Research also shows that most VR users report nausea, drowsiness, and dizziness.4 About 40% and 70% of motion sickness cases occur after 15 minutes of the VR experience.5 However, it can last several hours.
People who typically experience motion sickness on a rollercoaster, train, airplane, or boat are more susceptible to VR-induced motion sickness.
Virtual reality involves rapid light switching, flashing, and movements that force eye muscles to adjust just as fast. Prolonged exposure to such stress can cause involuntary eye muscle twitches.6
According to Oculus, the largest manufacturer of VR devices, eye twitching occurs in about 1 in 4,000 people. If you experience persistent twitching after using a VR headset, discontinue use and consult your eye doctor.
BMC Ophthalmology indicates that using VR headsets too frequently or for extended periods may cause blurred vision.7 This is a common symptom of computer vision syndrome (digital eye strain). However, the blurriness is temporary, and you should regain visual acuity once you take a break.
Are VR Headsets Safe for Children?
Most immersive environments focus on the gaming market, which children and young adults dominate. According to 2021 statistics, 76% of American kids (under 18) are gamers.8
Children are particularly at risk of VR dangers because their depth perception, focus, and tracking abilities are still developing. Potential dangers of VR to kids include early myopia (nearsightedness) and digital eye strain.9
VR can cause myopia (nearsightedness) in kids just like a TV or computer would if they spent long hours close to the screen. Furthermore, some VR environments may not be appropriate for children or too traumatic to process.
To prevent potential psychological effects, most manufacturers prohibit use by children under 13 years. Manufacturers with no age cap still mention that the devices are “not designed to be used by children.”
While virtual reality is not entirely unsafe for kids, it’s better to take caution to protect their mental health and vision development.
Potential Eye Health Benefits of VR
Despite the negative consequences of VR headsets, current innovations aim at improving eye function, such as:
- Hand-eye coordination
- Depth perception
- Reaction time
- Visual memory
- Peripheral awareness (ability to see objects that aren’t in your central line of vision)
Treatment for Amblyopia (Lazy Eye)
Research shows that virtual reality-based training can enhance visual acuity in adult amblyopia (lazy eye).10
VR-based treatments are also under development for children with lazy eyes as an alternative to eye patches or atropine drops.11
Luminopia One was the first FDA-approved VR-based therapy for childhood amblyopia. It combines VR technology with modified TV shows and movies that children can enjoy while improving their vision.
Treatment for Vision Loss
People with low vision can regain their sight with the help of VR-powered headsets. One example is SightPlus™ by GiveVision, which the manufacturer claims can help visually impaired people to see near and distant objects.
Currently, VR therapy combines other treatments, such as eye patches and special glasses, and is rarely used alone. As VR technology continues to evolve, researchers are optimistic about its potential to promote eye health.
How to Protect Your Eyes When Using VR
The key to preventing the harmful effects of VR is using it in moderation. Take the following steps to protect your eyes:
- Adjust the display settings. This way, the projected images aren’t too bright.
- Take the headset off and rest your eyes at regular intervals. Experts recommend the 20-20-20 rule: for every 20 minutes of watch time, look at an object at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
- Blink more consciously. This prevents dryness and fatigue.
- Massage the eyes and temples gently in a circular motion. Do this after your VR session or during your breaks.
- Take a break from the headset and stretch. Move around and take deep breaths to keep your blood flowing and refresh your brain.
- Keep your prescription glasses on. While using a VR headset, avoid straining your eyes by wearing your glasses.
- Regular vision checks for children. This will ensure they’re safe from any negative effects of VR. Regular physical activities will also benefit their visual health.12
A little discomfort and eye strain are normal, especially after using VR headsets for extended periods. These symptoms should subside on their own as you rest your eyes.
If the eye strain persists, over-the-counter artificial tears can help. If everything fails, consult an ophthalmologist.13
- Using a VR headset can affect the interaction between your brain and eyes, forcing the brain to process information differently.
- Many people report eye strain and discomfort caused by fatigued eye muscles after using a VR headset.
- VR headsets can also cause blurry vision, motion sickness, twitching, and dry eyes.
- The devices are not recommended for children below age 13, and everyone is advised to use them in moderation.
- Some eye health benefits of VR include improving hand-eye coordination, depth perception, reaction time and visual memory, and more.
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