After exploring the surface of the moon in an Oculus Rift headset, I wrestled with a bout of nausea that lasted a few hours. (Next time, I’ll be sure to follow the manufacturer’s advice and take a 10-minute break after every half-hour of play.) This “simulator sickness”—similar to motion sickness—is a fairly common side effect caused by the brain’s struggle to square what you see with what you feel.
When I leap and soar in real life, my brain gets vestibular feedback from my inner ears. But in virtual reality, that feedback is absent. That’s why VR companies are rushing to fine-tune the motion tracking in their headsets and are even considering installing electrodes inside the devices to stimulate the brain. The military uses such electrodes to keep fighter pilots from getting sick in simulators.
For some users, the hefty headsets can cause pressure on the nose or cheeks. And then, of course, there’s always the risk of tripping over a coffee table while you’re off exploring the far reaches of the universe. That’s why many VR games put you in a seated position. To be safe, you might want to have a spotter with you before you cover your eyes with the goggles and make the leap into virtual space.
VR’s immersive, role-playing prowess has been used to treat people suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. According to psychology professor Jim Blascovich, co-author of “Infinite Reality: The Hidden Blueprint of Our Virtual Lives” (William Morrow Paperbacks, 2012), it may be powerful enough to distract even young burn victims and significantly reduce their pain.
In fact, researchers are studying VR’s strong pull on the psyche to see whether it could be addictive. Stanford University psychiatrist Elias Aboujaoude, author of “Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality” (W.W. Norton & Co., 2012), says it’s too soon to say. “We would all do well to approach VR with a certain degree of caution,” he adds. “As something to be enjoyed in measured doses, not something to get lost in.”
Until more is known, be sure to pause for those 10-minute breaks, and if you find yourself feeling nauseated, refrain from driving, cycling, or operating heavy machinery.
Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the October 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
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