17 March 2022
Impacts of virtual reality on eye health
Technological advancements are a brilliant phenomenon. They have saved countless lives, made us much more efficient, and have helped us to understand the world around us, not to mention areas far beyond our planet. There’s no disputing that, overall, developments in the tech world can be very exciting, even if a little unsettling when we’re first introduced to them. One advancement which has made waves since it was first widely introduced in 2016 is the virtual reality (VR) headset.
Donning one of these headsets has the ability to make you feel like you’ve been transported to another world. Primarily, VR headsets are used for gaming to create an immersive experience for the user. Around 17% of the US population owns a headset for this purpose and this number is growing all the time. In fact, in 2020, over 52 million Americans used a VR headset at least once. Users typically find that, due to the simulation of movement in the headset, they can’t play for periods as long as they could with standard non-VR gaming. One VR developer who speaks about VR’s effects on his vision said that he usually split his activity into 30 minute sessions throughout the day in an attempt to limit “prolonged use”.
How does a virtual reality headset work?
A VR headset covers your eyes and is secured to your head by a strap around the back. Inside the box-like part which sits over your eyes are two small LCD monitors. Each of your eyes has one of these screens projected directly at it, positioned only centimetres away from the eyes. In front of the screens is a plane of glass designed to distort the split image around your peripheral vision. We’re constantly told throughout childhood not to sit too close to the TV, or to limit our time using smartphones and tablets for the sake of our eyes, so how does that match up with widespread use of VR headsets?
Your eyes are not designed to focus on screens at such close proximity for extended periods of time, particularly not when they involve large amounts of simulated movement as is common with VR gaming headsets. Your brain is forced to process visual stimuli in a different way to normal which can lead to eye strain. There are also issues that come with the disparity between the visual information we receive and our known body position. This can lead to cyber-sickness, particularly if the visual information we receive from the VR headset involves lots of movement.
What effects can a virtual reality headset have on your eyes?
We’ve briefly touched upon the sickness that many VR users find can come with extended use of a headset, but there are plenty more symptoms which can occur as a result of wearing VR headsets for an extended period. Some of these are synonymous with the effects of too much screen time which, understandably, has lots of crossovers with VR headset use. We blink far less often when using digital screens which can strain our eyes and bring on fatigue. The movement and close proximity aspects of VR can bring on ‘cybersickness’ with symptoms such as:
- Eye strain
- Dry eyes
- Eye fatigue
- Blurry vision
- Nausea when looking around
- Vertigo and dizziness
- Eye twitching
People who typically struggle with motion sickness or travel sickness may be more likely to experience these symptoms in relation to a VR headset. If you notice any of these symptoms while or immediately after using a VR headset, it is recommended that you stop using it and visit a doctor to ensure that you have no underlying vision issues. Oculus, a VR video game platform owned by Meta, say that 1 in 4,000 users may suffer from seizures as a result of using the headset.
Using VR headsets to improve eyesight
While we’ve covered the negative effects of VR headsets on your vision, it’s only fair to also discuss how recent developments in the VR world are being used to help people improve their vision. A start-up called GiveVision have created a VR headset device named SightPlus. People whose eyesight is damaged beyond repair have used the SightPlus to allow them to see again. It works by projecting a video of the real world into the working part of the retina (the back of the eye) thereby restoring vision.
The SightPlus has been trialled at Moorfields Eye Hospital and a staggering 59 out of 60 participants found that it improved their eyesight. It has been found particularly useful for scenarios such as reading or watching TV and provides a very exciting glimpse into the future of vision-aid technology.
The main takeaway from this article is that if you’re going to use a VR headset, it’s important to do so in moderation with regular breaks. If you notice any changes to your vision while using the headset, or immediately afterwards, it’s crucial that you visit your optician and have your eyes checked. As we said at the beginning of this blog post, technological advancements are really exciting – particularly when they relate to the development of visual aids – but we just need to be mindful of how overuse of them can impact our lives and eye health.