For those dreaming of a quiet summer with their kids immersed by their new VR gaming platform, it might be time to think again. Sony has stated that its PlayStation VR headset is only suitable for over-twelves, an announcement that is notable for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, this makes it the third major headset manufacturer (after HTC and Oculus) to place an age limit on its device. Secondly, its recommended age is lower by a year than both of its major competitors. On one hand, this sounds a lot like the usual panic that occurs whenever a new technology becomes prevalent, for example dire warnings that Google is making us stupid or studies that suggest social media causes us to become less moralistic. But is this (almost) unified stance from VR manufacturers a case of posturing to generate desirability, or a reaction to a very real risk that virtual reality might ruin our kids’ eyesight?

 

Problem-spotting

 

Working out whether there is a genuine physical threat from VR is not easy to quantify, largely due to a lack of user data. Even with this small sample pool, however, there have been a couple of early warning signs that prolonged use of virtual reality might be harmful for users’ eyes.

One obvious problem is how the content is delivered. Virtual reality uses stereoscopic images, which can be difficult for the eye to process. This can result in users suffering from vergence-accommodation conflict, which happens when both eyes fail to align their focus on an object that seems nearer or further away than it actually is. This could cause ‘visual stress’, including short-term disorientation and headaches in certain cases, particularly after heavy use.

Another visual concern is game transfer phenomena, which is when images of what has been viewed remains ‘stamped’ in the users’ vision or certain response patterns being applied by the mind even after the gaming session has finished. This is already well-documented for normal video gaming and some early adopters have reported a similar issue with the more immersive experience of VR. Again, however, this is a short-term problem, and it has been suggested that the improved displays in the new consumer VR headsets will make this less likely to happen. 

One of the few studies to date into serious exposure to VR, which saw a participant exposed to almost twenty-four hours in a virtual environment, indicated that repeated cycles of small amounts of simulator sickness and occasional confusion from the test subject as to whether something was real or virtual. This paper unmistakably outlines shortcomings in VR that should discourage prolonged exposure, although these findings should inform both adult and child user behaviour.

 

How young is too young?

 

Considering that the vision of children is not normally well-formed enough to deal with 3D content until they are three years old, VR is clearly not suitable for the very young. Yet the twelve- or thirteen-year-old age limit appears to be a precautionary measure, rather than being based on any thorough scientific studies. This is likely to change in the future as more data becomes available, at least if Oculus chief executive Brendan Iribe’s comments last year are anything to go by:

 

“It is early days and we really are trying to be conscious of health and safety. Thirteen was something that made a lot of sense; when we became a part of Facebook, their age is thirteen as well. We felt ‘let’s start at 13, let’s evolve the technology more, let’s build more confidence in the health and safety side of it’ […] One day, we definitely want to have Oculus for kids, especially for all the educational use of this.”

 

As market adoption of virtual reality gains momentum, we will quickly learn much more about any potential side effects that come from using virtual reality. At present, many of the problems that have been presented are similar to those that come from prolonged exposure, much in the same way that video games and television can be dangerous in excess. It is definitely better to err on the side of caution but, if carefully managed, it seems likely that limited exposure to virtual reality will not have serious detrimental effects on our children.