By Jeffrey Jose
Person wearing a VR headset wanders near a bridge and two people dramatically try to stop the VR user from going off the side.

The world around us is constantly evolving. In the past, people hypothesized that we’d have flying cars, hoverboards, and interplanetary travel. Although some hypotheses about the world of the future ended up being fulfilled, not many could have ever predicted that humanity would expand into the virtual world. As more and more companies invest in the new technology, virtual reality is becoming increasingly commonplace in people's lives and more advanced. Virtual reality offers an escape from our chaotic, ever-changing world. It makes sense that the technology has taken off so much recently, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic when people couldn’t even access the real world normally. On the surface level, virtual reality seems like a real game changer, however, this escape may not be as sweet as it seems. Immersive extended reality experiences create new kinds of uncertainty that are problematic. The uncertainty created by virtual reality is harmful for our emotional and physical health. 

Virtual reality may seem like a new technology, but it has been around for quite some time. Virtual reality is continuing to become a household name around the world, mostly in the field of entertainment. However, companies like Meta and Microsoft intend to bring their virtual reality platforms into the commercial and military worlds. Apple has just released the Apple Vision Pro which is a high end virtual and extended reality headset with immense computing power. With these new advancements, it is likely that virtual reality will start to become more common in the workplace due to the benefits it can have for fields like medicine and healthcare. Although, virtual reality brings a lot to the table, such as the opportunity to perform practice surgeries without human or animal cadavers, the harms may outweigh the benefits. 

Google Cardboard
Google Cardboard

Although it has many positives, the dangers of virtual reality are very real. Virtual reality creates uncertainty as it allows users to temporarily dissociate from the physical world around them. This creates the uncertainty of not knowing which world is real or a simulation. Anyone who has experienced virtual reality before understands how captivating and immersive it is. While locked in to a virtual world, it is likely that people can become hyper fixated on the virtual world and forget about the real world they live in. This also creates a problematic experience when adjusting back to the real world. The first time I used virtual reality, about 4 years ago, the technology was pretty good, but definitely far from perfect. I used the Google Cardboard, which at the time felt like the biggest new advancement in technology. Compared to the new Meta Quest 3, the Google Cardboard just looks like what it is, a cardboard box. This comparison really shows how much virtual reality technology has changed in such a small amount of time. 

I truly felt the advancement of this new technology when I used it. During my experience with the new Meta Quest 3, I was fully mesmerized by the new world I was within. I thought I would be able to easily distinguish between the real and virtual world, but as soon as I put on the headset, I became fully immersed. Sensory information from reality seemed to disappear into the background and the bombardment of virtual information just took over. The line between reality and virtual reality completely faded and I became hyper fixated on fully experiencing the new world I had been transported into.

For example, I almost fell over when I tried Richie’s Plank Experience. I never thought I’d admit that in writing, but it really shows how virtual reality can be physically dangerous. I was so locked into a virtual world that I almost fell over in real life. I was so out of touch with reality that I put my body in danger. And the craziest part is that when I almost fell over, I really felt like I was about to fall off the virtual building in the game. My palms instantly became sweaty and I felt that sinking feeling in my stomach. How could a virtual experience have such real physical effects? That was just my first time playing a virtual reality game. I’m sure other virtual reality experiences could have much worse consequences.

Meta Quest 3 VR headset.
Meta Quest 3

Later in my experience using virtual reality, I completely lost track of time. Although the home screen showed a digital clock on the virtual dock that would follow my head around every time I turned, once I was in the virtual world it was like time no longer existed. Almost all of the programs I used with the Meta Quest 3 lacked any sort of clock or time feature. This made it very easy to let go of my connection to the physical world. The only thing holding me back was that my neck started to get tired after some time and my face was getting a bit sweaty, but I didn't care and persisted using the technology anyway. I was not prepared for the side effects of this. Immediately after removing the headset, I experienced eye strain and had a headache that lasted the entire day.

Now imagine if virtual reality became part of everyone’s day-to-day life. If people are forced to use virtual reality for work, it can lead to new levels of overworking and stress. Tristan Bove writes, “Employees’ anxiety over their job also increased by 19% when working in the metaverse, while their perception of their workload grew by 35% relative to the week spent in a physical office” in Yahoo! Finance. Clearly the side effects of virtual reality become even worse when not in an entertainment setting. Although one may imagine that a virtual workload would probably be less stressful, think about it this way: if you are doing virtual work, where is the accomplishment of getting that work done? When you do work, an important part of the process is feeling the dopamine hit of completing the work. When the stack of papers you’re reading isn’t even really there, this dopamine hit is nonexistent. There’s no physical feedback of you putting the pen down after a hard day of work. In a virtual workspace, it may feel like the work you are doing is pointless and this could lead to feeling unsatisfied with your job. If virtual reality just creates a false sense of productivity bundled with several health issues, without enhancing the quality or quantity of one’s work, what is the point? It is only detrimental to our work, but more importantly our health. In a world where toxic work culture and mental health problems because of it are on a rise, introducing virtual reality technology into our lives could only exacerbate these issues. 

Although for now, it seems like virtual reality is a fun and exciting new technology that can improve our entertainment, people must remember the harmful side effects of this new technology. Tools can be powerful if used in the correct way, but they can also be just as deadly. We have to make sure we don’t fall off the plank when it comes to virtual reality.

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