There’s no doubt there is a tremendous amount of promise in VR. But it’s not without its problems and risks.
In general we tend to put a positive light on exciting stuff. Often for all the right reasons, but occasionally with disregard for those which are critically important.
With the potential that virtual reality has to become all encompassing in our lives, it’s going to be worth knowing all of the issues and more importantly the risks that come with it. None of this will be lost on the major manufacturers, who will all be working hard on solving each one.
Let’s take a look at some of the known problems and risks, both from a technological and human nature perspective:
- Pricing – Will High Pricing Be a Barrier to Success?
- Getting Hooked – Too Much Of a Good Thing?
- Mental Health Risks – Could VR Mess With Our Brains?
- False Memories – Could VR Make Us Remember Stuff That Didn’t Really Happen?
- Physical Health Risks – What Are The Risks Of Getting Hurt?
- General Side Effects – Are there psychological or physiological dangers looming?
- Prank Risks – A Bit Of Fun, Or Potentially Dangerous?
- Technology Issues – Does It All Work Perfectly?
- Is It Not Real Enough?
- Privacy Concerns – Who Knows What You’re Doing?
It’s all well and good talking about the problems that virtual reality experiences might generate, but first we have to get to the point where the opportunity even materialises for those to become apparent.
It’s this area of pricing which may cause VR a body blow from which it’ll find hard to recover.
The problem is that it’s mass acceptance (and use) of the technology that will drive ever higher levels of content availability, which in turn will encourage more users, which in turn drives higher investment and technological advances.
If the price of headsets is too high, this does put some blockers on the first step of encouraging buyers of hardware.
Unfortunately it is high.
Sure you can get smartphone powered headsets for up to $100 or so, and these do give some great experiences even though fairly limited in number. But they’re more ‘try me and see what it’s like’ devices than must-haves. They can’t match the power of the more expensive higher end desktop PC powered models. They don’t deliver all of the same functionality.
And it’s these hit higher end headsets that hit the wallet hard. The initial price of the HTC Vive was announced in Feb 2016 as $800 – a price that’s sure to put off a significant number of potential early adopters.That’s without any upgrades you may need to make to your PC to make it all work.
With it’s competitor the Oculus Rift setting you back around $1400 (including the VR ready PC), we’re already into a game where only the keenest of us with fairly deep pockets will be diving straight in to buy.
Even so, there will be buyers. And the manufacturers and other big names in VR are championing the benefits to such an extent that maybe the hype will drive take up exponentially. Irrelevant of cost of entry. When the Playstation VR price gets confirmed, maybe that’ll be the one that breaks the mould.
Equally a new headset could appear from nowhere given a number of open source developments projects currently on the go.
For now there’s a risk, all be it a small one, that your first headset could be gathering dust in a forgotten drawer within 6 months. Not very likely given the power of the experiences, but possible.
As with any form of entertainment, there is the possibility of getting too much of a good thing. Many of us can be prone to getting hooked on a pastime or interest. This can be great, and will often drive a focus that can generate mastery in a subject.
But there are some subject areas where this focus can cause problems. Persistent use of VR could possibly change and shape our views in the same way that TV or newspapers do, but with much more power.
Aside from the short term sickness that some may feel if there is any lag between imaging, movement, and sound while inside a VR experience, there are also potential longer term risks. Many of which won’t be known fully until we’ve seen devices in use over a prolonged period.
If any of the risks do come to pass, they’re likely to be associated with over-exposure. And given the way that VR works by tricking the brain into believing something is real, it’s this area of the human anatomy where any long term effects might be seen.
Traumatic or frightening VR experiences could have an obvious impact, both long term on the thinking part of a viewer, and shorter term even on areas like the heart. To counter this, it’s definitely recommended that children don’t engage in wearing headsets and watching VR content, plus anyone with known or suspected existing medical conditions should practice extreme caution.
Certainly frequent breaks are required even if you’ve proved you handle engagement with virtual environments well.
It’s not all bad of course, with building positive emotions such as empathy being a good target subject for virtual material. Equally it’s possible to induce states of mind that could help in pain control, drug dependency, and depression.
Given the powerful sensations that a foray into a virtual world can bring, it’s possible that some users could build memories from an encounter that for all intents and purposes they believe to have really happened. This may be more likely to happen in children at an age when deep brain formation is still under way, hence one of the reasons that the advice is for children not to use VR devices.
For an adult though, it’s difficult to tell if this potential could be a positive or negative. Most older users will be able to tell the difference between real or virtual.
You’re unlikely to encounter any physical risks by enjoying sedentary VR. That is while you’re sitting with a headset in a non mobile environment. But for anyone lucky enough to have the space available for actual movement, or the big bucks needed for some of the accessories such as treadmills, the potential for some sort of injury is clear.
One key thing to be aware of – even in non mobile environments – is that your brain can be tricked into believing anything is real. So that table top you’re about to put your controllers down on will not actually be there. Activities such as jumping or turning quickly can also have adverse effects, especially again if you’re holding a controller and strike a real world object with it.
When it comes to more than one party in the same experience, the dangers are obvious. Enter any game or social activity where you’re using hand movements, and there’s always the possibility the other person (or people) are going to take a knock.
In mobile environments, those that need fast running-type movements, you’ll need to be spacially aware. Unless the device you’re using has some form of warning system, or an overlaid real world presentation, there’s going to be a chance of putting your face into a wall.
It’s early days to be talking about potential side effects., and some (if any) will become more apparent after we’ve seen continued use by large numbers of people.
The truth is that at this point we don’t know. Prolonged exposure is unlikely to have negative effects, but we should be mindful of possible psychological and physiological effects.
Headaches brought on by eye strain are one area to keep an eye on.
Whenever someone is totally engaged in an activity – with their full focus on it to the exclusion of all else – their normal senses of self preservation are impaired, if not negated. That leaves them open to some pranks.
In VR these can seem so real that trying them out on a friend who’s wearing a headset could cause some very real upset.
Types of pranks may range from pushing someone on a chair as they’re immersed in a roller coaster ride, through to poking someone in the ribs as a knife comes in from an attacker to the side.
You’ll get the point and there are plenty more examples. Some may be fun, especially to see the reactions of the target of the joke. But some may feel and display very real reactions to threats such as these which could lead to injuries, both for the target and the perpetrator.
The most obvious problem in VR technology is in the headsets themselves, in that you’re limited in the connectivity methods.
Smartphone powered devices are straightforward. Plug your mobile into the headset and you’re away, but the experience has some limitations. But when you’re working with a higher spec device that works with a desktop PC, the current solutions mean you’ll need to be connected with some form of cabling which can be restricting.
There are some firms working on wireless solutions, and we may even see one some time in 2016.
Latency has the potential to be the biggest blocker to the ideal VR experience.
To understand it, you need to consider what happens when you look at something in the real world. If you turn, and the image you’re originally looking at does not move, this can lead to a feeling of sickness. Your brain is not accepting that the viewed object should not be moving as you shift your gaze.
In VR this is hugely important. If an object does not move with your head movements within milliseconds, you’ll constantly be bombarded with sickness-inducing imagery. The ideal target is a lag of less than 20 milliseconds.
In fact, excessive latency is just one contributor to possible causes of nausea.
The most important to recognise is one caused by the human body itself. That of your internal body systems disagreeing with what you’re seeing with your eyes, or what way you believe you are moving.
In the main, the latest versions of headsets are powerful enough to reduce this effect, or even to eliminate it in some circumstances.
They’ve done this with a combination of much improved motion tracking, better display resolution, higher frame rates, and better overall design.
Achieving high frame rates is another area that needs significant focus. Both the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift are aiming to consistently deliver speeds of 90 frames per second.
Even if they achieve it consistently though, there is still a chance of a quality loss on the device you’re using to power the headset.
For the Vive and Rift this is of course the PC, and clearly this is the reason for all the VR ready PC recommendations.
These problems are well documented and known by the manufacturers. Oculus in particular offer a partial solution by recognising that we’ll all have different tolerance levels, and different VR experiences will fall into specific comfort-level brackets.
They put warnings on some apps in the Oculus store that spell out the expected comfort level – ranging from “comfortable for most,” through to “comfortable for some” or “comfortable for few.” It’ll be down to you of course to work out which levels you can or can’t handle.
The Heat Problem In Mobile Devices
It’s well known with early adopters of the Gear VR that the buildup of heat is an issue. This is caused by a smartphone’s
CPU and GPU running at maximum in order to display the content effectively. At a certain heat point, the device has to either cut the speed by throttling back or shutting down.
Samsung are working on ways to manage the problem.
Smartphone Screen Refresh Rate, Body Tracking, & Battery Life
Mobile device displays can’t refresh as frequently as other more powerful screens do. It’s a problem which leads to flickering of images on the display which effectively can ruin the illusion of virtual reality.
Smartphones also don’t contain the sensors needed to allow accurate tracking of body movements, which clearly limits the mobile users ability to enjoy the more participation-based VR environments.
Another issue we’ve all faced at some point with a mobile phone is in its power holding capability. With the display of VR images using high amounts of power, that issue with battery life becomes more of a concern.
Not a particularly big problem, and easily rectified. You may notice that displays can fog up, but this tends to disappear after a few minutes. It’s caused by differences in temperature, similar to the effect you get when wearing swimming goggles.
If it worries you, there are some chemical cleaners that will do the trick. I can’t remember where I read it, but there was an article that suggested Jaws Quick Spit, which I believe sells for around $6 a bottle on Amazon.
One potential problem that might not normally be recognised is in the reality level of what’s being viewed in virtual reality. That’s to say the quality of the rendering.
There’s so much to like about the potential in VR experiences that even with these problems it’s almost inconceivable that it will fail to get mass consumer acceptance.
Sure the technology issues need to be solved. Sure the price needs to come down. But you could pick half a dozen other technology related products without even blinking which were once in the same position. Each of those now indispensable products and part of our everyday lives as long as we’re here.
We need to be cautious. We need to monitor what happens. We need to learn how best to handle VR for our own individual responses to it.
But it’s here. Those of us that can’t afford it will want it. When the price comes down, we’ll have it.