Virtual worlds bring actual risk
We are moving into an age where many people will live virtual lives, but little is known about the potential health effects.
The virtual reality (VR) revolution has started, with a number of companies releasing consumer devices in the last year.
Players can now achieve full immersion in virtual worlds for less than $1,000, but as VR grows, researchers say we have more to learn.
The American Psychiatric Association officially introduced the concept of internet gaming disorder in 2015.
Federation University Australia clinical psychology senior lecturer Vasileios Stavropoulo says new diagnoses “appear to have been increasing worldwide”, and that VR technology “definitely” has addictive potential.
“We should be cautious,” he said.
“We're not only talking about virtual reality, we're also talking about virtual personality,” he said.
“Scientifically, it's what we call the compensatory internet use hypothesis, which basically suggests that those who are not fulfilled here in this world, tend to escape in another world where they might feel more fulfilled.”
The basis of the appeal is that people can experience themselves differently online – building an ideal self through an avatar and connect emotionally with a virtual world.
Experts say VR experiences are becoming more meaningful for users than any other previous medium.
But University of South Australia School of Information Technology and Mathematical Sciences Professor Bruce Thomas says VR will have many positive applications, like allowing isolated people to connect with others.
He said online gambling will continue to cause more harm than VR, but the same people who get addicted to online gaming risk being addicted to VR.
“I don't think there's anything inherent about VR that makes it more addictive,” he said.
“People are already spending a lot of time in front of a computer.”
But VR does have its own risks.
Professor Thomas has concerns about the conflict VR can create with eye vergence-accommodation.
Our eyes rely on two major mechanisms; vergence movement - when both eyes move in opposite directions, and accommodation movement – when lenses change shape to focus at distance or up close.
Stereoscopic VR is a conflict for these mechanisms, because the eyes remain focused at a close distance while the stereo image going into both eyes gives the illusion of depth.
Microsoft multimedia and interaction researcher Mar Gonzalez Franco says this could actually reduce the risk of addiction.
She claims that because VR is self-experiential, people “will get physically tired, in the same way that going for a walk gets you tired”.
“And I think this is something very good about VR, so people will reduce their exposures and spend more time in reality,” she said.