There’s no question that we’re spending increasing amounts of time on digital devices. With the invention of virtual reality, we can now immerse ourselves entirely in the experience. Given what we know about the health impacts of spending too much time on other devices, are there any advantages to using virtual reality?

Virtual Reality (VR) is a computer-generated environment that someone can explore and interact with. The brain is tricked into thinking what you’re seeing in the virtual world is real. The idea of virtual reality isn’t new; it’s been in development since the late 1960s. It has been steadily gaining popularity in recent years, with statistics showing that more than a million VR headsets were shipped during the third quarter of 2017. However, the technology hasn’t become full-on mainstream yet.

The primary issue is that the price of headsets has remained very expensive. The other problem is the other gadgets needed to operate the headset. For instance, take video games. Besides the VR headset, you need a very powerful PC, a good amount of space, and sensors set up around it. All these things push the cost into thousands. Prices are starting to come down gradually as technology improves and there’s more competition in the marketplace.

Since VR is becoming more accessible to the public, businesses are starting to buy into the concept. In fact, VR headsets are now being used in many industries to train people or provide a new way to experience things. By making simulations of complicated concepts accessible to people of all ages, virtual reality makes cognitive learning faster, more effective, and more efficient. Let’s take a closer look at the future of VR.

VR & Recreation

Virtual reality could add a lot of culture to our lives. While theater audiences can already enjoy 3D movies, with VR, users can be even more deeply immersed in their movie experiences. When it comes to media content, VR could revolutionize the way it’s made. For those who are into painting, VR allows you to actually step into your image and come out the other side. Several museums have already collaborated with developers to create virtual spaces where people can experience the museums’ physical collections through VR.

For sports fans, some virtual reality companies have built virtual stadiums so you can have the thrill of game day experiences with your friends without ever leaving your couch. Virtual reality can also transport users to live stage performances or concerts.

A unique way VR is being used is as a writing and narrative design management tool for immersive storytelling. Along this same concept, you can now watch news stories and documentaries in VR. This means you can experience stories rather than just listen to them. It’s as if you were standing opposite the journalist where the story is happening.

The tourism industry has recently joined the VR movement. By using an app, you can be transported virtually to your destination in seconds. The idea is to be able to try your vacation before you buy it. The industry is taking the first steps that would enable you to go on guided virtual tours of hotels, restaurants, and tourist landmarks.

When it comes to shopping, the landscape is about to change. Many people are familiar with online shopping websites. VR is primed to allow people to experience a virtual tour of an entire store. Essentially, shoppers get a real-time shopping experience and can even shop with their friends. A problem with online shopping that VR is hoping to solve is that we can’t try on the clothes before we buy them. VR body-scanning technology would allow you to try on clothes in the virtual world to see what they would look like in person.

VR & Health

Beyond recreation, virtual reality is already making significant headway in its ability to improve many industries. One of these areas is healthcare, which has been a big adopter of the technology. VR simulations use actual diagnostic images from CAT scans or ultrasounds to construct 3D models of a patient’s anatomy. These virtual models help surgeons determine the safest and most efficient way to place surgical incisions or practice complex procedures ahead of time.

Virtual reality could be a cost-effective and engaging tool for rehabilitation. Stroke and brain injury victims can use it to regain motor and cognitive function faster than with traditional physical therapy. The virtual exercises and real-time feedback are made to feel like games, helping to motivate patients to practice everyday activities. VR has even been used as pain relief for burn injuries.

When it comes to mental health, VR is showing great promise. Users can find their happy place by putting on their headsets and becoming immersed in a relaxing environment. For individuals with debilitating conditions, including PTSD and panic disorders, VR could provide a safe environment for them to come in contact with the things they fear while remaining in a safe, controlled environment.

VR & Science

It’s probably not surprising that VR is making huge strides in being used for scientific purposes. In fact, scientists at NASA are using technology to figure out how to control robots on Mars and provide astronauts with a way to de-stress. The agency also used the technology to share the experience of what it’s like onboard various spacecraft with the public.

VR is even changing car manufacturing from the design process to virtual prototypes. The virtual prototype allows designers and engineers from various departments to closely inspect different components, like the engine or upholstery, and spot potential problems before they arise. Thanks to these developments, VR is saving the automotive industry millions by reducing the number of prototypes built per vehicle line. Toyota uses the technology as part of their TeenDrive365 campaign, which is being used to educate teens and parents about distracted driving.

VR & Law Enforcement

When it comes to law enforcement and the military, virtual reality is becoming essential. VR simulators allow officers to practice patrolling as a squad in a town, enter and clear a building, and how to de-escalate situations (helping them practice making judgment calls and critical decisions under stress). The military uses simulators to train soldiers before they are deployed, so teams can practice working together in realistically replicated environments before using real-world tactical equipment.

In the courtroom, jury members may no longer have to evaluate crime scenes by looking at two-dimensional photographs. Instead, they’ll be able to see a crime scene in 3D, which could help them visualize how people and objects, like bullets, move through space.

VR & Homes

As far as home buying, that’s going to be changed too by virtual reality! Instead of having to go to multiple houses to find your perfect one, you can tour properties from the comfort of your current home. This means you can weed out all the houses that you don’t want to see and view the ones you’re most likely to love in person.

Homebuilding is becoming part of the VR mix. VR is changing how architects design and experiment with their work because it makes it possible to see not just what a building or space will look like but also how it will feel. This means individuals can experience their new space before it’s physically built and make real-time changes, saving time and money. In addition, it’ll increase the satisfaction of the completed project.

VR & Businesses

Businesses are beginning to explore using virtual reality via apps and the Web to integrate their corporate training because it makes it more accessible, cheaper, and increases learning retention levels. Some companies are using VR to replace assessment days and interviews, saving on cost and time for both the employer and the potential employee.

One use of VR that is becoming increasingly popular in the workspace is virtual conferences. As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, many businesses started turning to this model to deal with social distancing measures. Once the pandemic subsides enough that we’re able to return to more in-person settings, don’t expect the return of a typical in-person conference. Event-industry stakeholders are using it to drive collective experiences among in-person audiences.

As marketing is shifting more and more to how companies make customers feel, virtual reality will be an increasing part of it. This isn’t just for commercial products, though. Since VR can evoke empathy because of how real it seems, it’s extremely valuable to charities. They can use it to increase understanding of an issue. Time and again, we see that people are more likely to be moved to action when immersed in a situation they would otherwise not be able to relate to or come close to experiencing.

VR & Education

Since virtual reality training has been shown to improve the retention and recall of events, it could revolutionize education by enabling students to learn in an immersive, experiential way. One of the remarkable aspects of a VR classroom is that students can learn from lecturers around the world. Many colleges are using it to create virtual campus tours, so potential students can feel what it would be like to attend.

VR & Physical Problems

Despite all of the positive uses for virtual reality, there are concerns about its impact on our bodies. Most of these are related to recreational use because of the tendency to overuse them. One major health concern involves the eye and how it affects its growth. It might lead to myopia (nearsightedness). Myopia is a growing problem around the world. Studies show that in the US, nearsightedness rose from only 25% of the population in the 1970s to more than 40% by 2000. This equates to about 10 million American adults being considered “severely nearsighted.”

Given what we know from tablets, phones, and other electronic devices, there’s plenty of evidence that using devices that are too close to the eye can cause it to lengthen and increase the risk for myopia. Many experts are concerned that VR might make things worse. To date, VR headsets designers haven’t come up with designs that can mimic the wide-angle view of human vision.

Besides eye strain (and the headaches that usually come with it), the next common complaint is nausea because of motion sickness. According to experts, it’s from the way VR affects the eye-brain connection. Typically, our eyes naturally converge and focus on a point in space. Our brain is used to this and puts the two responses together. With VR, it separates them, confusing the brain. Scientists are calling this disparity the “vergence-accommodation conflict.” Most people refer to it as “cybersickness.” Since there aren’t any long-term studies done as of now, they aren’t quite sure how serious it might be.

Most VR devices include a warning to see a doctor before use if a person is pregnant, elderly, or has pre-existing conditions that may affect your virtual reality experience, like vision abnormalities, psychiatric disorders, heart conditions, epilepsy (or a history of seizures), or other serious medical conditions. Others warnings are for those with implanted medical devices, such as cardiac pacemakers, hearing aids, and defibrillators. Some manufacturers also state that some people can have a seizure even without a history, especially those younger than 20.

VR & Mental Health

Another concern about virtual reality’s immersive capabilities is that social isolation might become a severe problem for many individuals. People who report more fulfillment from virtual scenarios often have underlying conditions, such as untreated social anxiety. On the one hand, VR easily satisfies social needs and drives. The problem is that they can be so satisfying that addicted users will withdraw physically from society. This is common for VR users who spend a lot of time gaming, especially violent games.

Why does this happen?

Scientists are calling it escapism.

In 1996, Peter Vorderer, a professor at the University of Mannheim, defined the term to mean that people who have unsatisfying life circumstances will choose to “leave” the reality they live cognitively and emotionally. With VR, it’s possible to replace an unhappy reality with a better, virtual one. Escapism appears to be a natural mechanism because the mind needs it. However, the issue is that VR content can affect your perception of reality.

Due to the realness of the VR environment, experiences can be stored in the brain’s memory center in ways that are very similar to real-world physical experiences. Essentially, when VR is done well, the brain believes it’s real. In small doses, as long as the content is fun, educational, or inspirational, this isn’t a bad thing. However, suppose the content is frightening, violent, or anxiety-provoking. In that case, it can cause your body to react physically (raising your heart rate and blood pressure) and cause psychological reactions, such as anxiety, fear, or PTSD. In large doses, VR can isolate individuals, so they don’t receive any physical interaction outside of the VR environment.

VR & Children

Due to the newness of the technology, there’s little research available on the effects of VR on children. It’s generally recommended that the younger the child, the shorter the exposure should be. In fact, most manufacturers have set a cutoff age where they say no child under 13 shouldn’t use the device. Given the realness of the VR environment, it should come as no surprise that studies have shown children may be even more susceptible to confusing virtual reality with the real thing, with the youngest at the most risk. So, parents should be careful and active participants when allowing their children to use VR.

How to Use VR Safely

How much virtual reality should you have in one sitting? According to manufacturers, you should take a 10 – 15 minute break every 30 minutes, even if you don’t think you need it. It’s important to note that this recommendation isn’t based on science. To ensure you don’t end up injured, don’t use VR without supervision or in a crowded space. While wearing the headset, you’re blind to the world around you. It’s a good idea to keep pets, small children, and other obstacles out of the area. You should avoid using it if you’re intoxicated, overly tired, or are suffering from a cold, headache, upset stomach, or other illnesses. All of these increase your chances of feeling worse.

As virtual reality technology continues to improve and its uses continue to expand, the generated worlds will become increasingly realistic. While this will be incredibly helpful in many senses, it does create a greater potential for overuse. We also should be taking steps to ensure that we don’t transition to a life mostly lived online (outside of regular society). The benefits and risks of VR are just now being explored. It’s up to us to determine how to use it best!