By Anonymous
illustration of a person in a virtual reality headset.

Just a few months ago, I had the opportunity to gain first hand experience with VR. The experience was pretty cool – until it wasn’t. After going through the basic orientation on the headset, I began to use Google Earth to locate my home town. Within seconds (in reality it was 5-10 minutes of being in VR) I was hit with a wave of nausea that just would not leave. The more I wandered in VR, the worse I felt, until I couldn’t take it anymore and had to remove the headset. I was appalled by how disoriented I felt after, and the nausea made me apprehensive to stepping into VR in the future. But, just a few weeks ago, I entered the virtual world once again, and while I didn’t get nearly as nauseous (likely cause I was playing straightforward games and not wandering around like last time) I still did not have a super great experience. When I was wearing the VR meta headsets and playing the games installed, I was shocked by how slowly time seemed to pass. There is no available clock while wearing the headset, so I couldn’t see how much time was passing, and because I was so involved with the game, I had no awareness of how much time was passing. I spent a whole class period (1 hr and 15 minutes) playing a game and it felt like just over 20 minutes had passed. This lack of time awareness is concerning and it made me question how the current trajectory of VR developments could negatively impact human populations. I know that there can be benefits of VR, such as with scientific innovation and high visualization capabilities, but I fear these benefits are overshadowed by harmful effects, like social isolation and chronic fatigue. As tech executives are racing against one another to create the next big advancement in VR, they need to be hyper-aware of the harms that VR can bring because if they are not, the heavy use of VR will start a pattern of overstimulated minds and less energetic populations, which will lead to significant health complications and a lack luster life. 

a surgeon using virtual reality to analyze a virtual pair of lungs.

To address the benefits first, VR is undoubtedly a robust technology that allows us to take part in experiences without causing harm to the real world. For example, in medicine, medical students and residents can view surgeries and treatments in VR before they step into the operating room. This allows medical students to feel more prepared for their procedures because of the high visualization that can be experienced through the 3D models that VR creates.

VR can also allow physicians to better treat disorders like PSTD and severe trauma. When doctors are typically treating these disorders, the treatment plan is to have the patient visualize their trauma and work through the emotions that arise as they relive the event. However, because these disorders are characterized by highly avoidant tendencies, the patient is likely to not fully immerse themselves in those negative memories again. VR can increase the visualization capabilities of these traumatic events, and help physicians create more effective treatment plans that help patients fully engage, confront, and process these difficult memories. Having a patient put on a pair of goggles to intentionally face a strong fear might sound a bit extreme (and at times unethical), but it is a viable treatment option for those that are struggling to step foot into their past and work thought their traumas. While painful in the short term, this treatment can help citizens recover and improve their mental state more quickly. 

Now, from the outside looking in, this all sounds great. Scientific advancements are always areas of excitement for the crowd, but we have to be incredibly careful, because VR does not come without its serious ramifications. A Yahoo Finance article explains that “[one] week working in the metaverse led to 19% more anxiety and 16% less productivity.”

This article details studies conducted in European institutions, including Coburg University and Cambridge University, and compares the experiences of 16 university staff or researcher participants who spent a 35-hour workweek in normal, physical office spaces, and another week doing the same work in virtual reality. From this week, it was shown that most people had increased anxieties, and worse ratings were seen across measures like health effects and productivity. Mental health is already notably declining in the Western world and the implementation of VR could easily exacerbate this trend. So, before we jump to conclusions and pursue this new reality, we need to make sure that the citizens are being put first and their health is not being sacrificed in hopes for future scientific discoveries.

person holding a VR headset and clutching their head and grimacing like they have a headache.

Take the example of Jeff Grover, who is an avid virtual reality gamer, and has been spending most of his time in VR for about five years (a pretty significant time that, in theory, would allow him to get adjusted to the virtual world). He explains in a Tech Monitor Article that he has begun to feel that his immersion in VR has blended with reality and that he is now experiencing ‘simulation sickness.’ Most notably, after a particularly long session of gaming, Grover exclaims that he feels symptoms of fatigue and confusion, similar to the feeling of jolting awake mid-dream. In the article, he recalls meeting his friends at a local bar after an hour-long session on his headset and he was unable to hold a conversation: he “...felt like [he] was sitting there, mouth agape with a big line of drool and just white noise playing in [his] brain.” Grover’s experience is profound because he has had time to gain familiarity with the sensations that VR brings, and still, he finds the transition back to the real world difficult. This anecdote provides ample evidence that citizens can easily lose themselves, and their senses, in a virtual world, and there is no assurance that this loss of self will be remedied. This inability to make a smooth transition between virtual reality and physical reality can leave us feeling more tired and ill equipped to thrive in the natural world.

These are just some of the concerns that VR prompts, and there will be more and more as citizens begin to use this technology daily. We do not have a full scope of the problems VR can create, and it is clear that the introduction of VR is a slippery slope that is more likely to be hindering and all consuming, rather than educational and productive. In an ideal world, citizens would be able to balance VR with living in the real world, but I fear that this balance is one that will not be achieved in time for us to be effective with this technology use, as evidenced by the studies described above. Tech entrepreneurs need to be cautious of these negative effects and while the idea of VR can be thrilling, we need to be realistic and understand that this technology is a dangerous one that needs to be handled with care. 

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