Health and Safety - Making VR
By Stephan N. Reilly
From seizure inducing arcade games to television smashing Wii controllers, health and safety warnings have evolved with games as a fun past time has caused severe real world consequences. Anyone who has ever played a video game has undoubtedly seen the “Health and Safety” warning before the title screen. Unfortunately, a lot of times these warnings are a reaction to an incident that forced a developer’s hand instead of them being proactive. Virtual reality is no exception. VR has the benefit of being on the cusp of going mainstream so there is still time to set healthy practices when it comes to experiencing virtual reality before it gets too far.
The most obvious health and safety risks are physical. Wearing a VR headset makes a person blind to the real world around them. This obliviousness to real world objects and people has caused players to walk into walls, knock objects off shelves and be otherwise in danger. Valve has helped on this front by creating the chaperone system for their HTC Vive. The chaperone system uses two lighthouses placed in opposite corners of the room to create a virtual map of the actual walls in the room which will alert the player in the headset when they are getting close to a real wall by placing a blue grid in front of them. This is a step in the right direction but still doesn’t account for physical objects that aren’t stationary. For example, if a player is standing up wearing their VR headset moving around and their dog wanders in the Vive doesn’t account for that so players can still trip and stumble.
Another physical health risk that comes with VR is strain. Wearing a headset for an extended play session can cause the player to feel back and neck pain. Creating lightweight headsets can help ease the strain on the player and allow for longer play sessions before needing to take a break. VR can also put a strain on player’s eyes. Humans have a natural field of view (FOV) of 200° with a binocular FOV of 140°. The Oculus Rift currently only has a 90° field of view. This creates a strain on the player’s eyes when they look to the sides while wearing the headset as their eyes are straining to focus. Playing for an extended period of time can cause bloodshot eyes and headaches. VR manufacturers can counteract this by creating headsets that offer a larger FOV. If headsets offer a wider FOV then not only will strain decrease but the experience will become more immersive as the player will experience almost indistinguishable perspective than what they experience not wearing the headset.
Increasing FOV will not always counteract motion sickness, however. In some cases, it actually makes it worse. According to a study conducted by Columbia University if a player’s FOV is decreased while they are moving motion sickness is actually decreased, so long as the original FOV is restored as soon as the player stops moving. So instead of developers blanket increasing or decreasing FOV across their whole game it’s actually an adapting FOV that will best reduce and possibly eliminate motion sickness and strain while in VR.
Beyond physical effects are psychological ones. Stanford University professor Jeremy Bailenson states that “[w]e shouldn’t fathom [virtual reality] as a media experience; we should fathom it as an experience.” If a player witnesses a gruesome murder while playing a virtual reality horror game the immersion makes it feel like they have actually witnessed a murder, even though logically the player knows they haven’t. The immersion makes the player feel like they are actually there and hence the experience is real and has a greater effect on that individual’s brain. There should be an ethical approach to designing virtual reality experiences. Just in the way a developer wouldn’t want to hurt the player physically with a strenuous headset they should equally not want to hurt the player’s mental health with a traumatic experience.
Before developers set their sights on creating amazing and immersive VR experiences they should first ensure that the technology and software are safe. If 2 or 3 years down the road it is found that VR causes an arthritis-like defect or an eyesight impediment and it could have been stopped now there will be a huge amount of backlash. VR needs to be a proactive medium instead of a reactive one.