For several years now, we have imagined a future where we can plug into a fully-three dimensional virtual world. Virtual reality opens the door to true escapism with a whole new level of immersive experience. It allows us to be with people or visit places that are physically far to reach. Thinking about it, there are infinite educational possibilities with virtual reality but as we get all hyped of all the wonders it can offer, there’s one group that could be left out in the cold — children.

Most VR headset manufacturers set age limits. For example, the Oculus Rift and Samsung’s Gear VR headsets have a 13+ age rating. Sony’s PlayStation VR is not recommended for use of children below 12 years old. And even though HTC doesn’t specify an age limit, it does provide a warning against the use of Vive on young children.

With this, you can’t help for parents and children alike to feel frustrated over these age limitations for VR headsets. Are there any risks of danger that may result in using it on the young ones?

Being new doesn’t mean it’s dangerous

According to Martin Banks, Professor of Optometry, Vision Science, Psychology, and Neuroscience at the University of California, “…kids are developing and development slows down when they reach adolescence, and so let’s just play it safe that while these kids are undergoing significant development, we’ll advise people not to let them use it.”

Virtual reality is relatively new, and it’s long-term effects are not yet fully known, especially on children. That’s why it’s not surprising that VR headset manufacturer are being cautious as to who will be using their product.

Nearsightedness, or myopia, is where close objects appear clear, but those far away look blurry. A study in the U.S. discovered that nearsightedness from ages 12 to 54 rose from 25 percent in 1971-1972 to 41.6 percent in 1999-2004. There’s a lot of evidence linking this trend to near work, such as reading or using a computer.

The damage occurs when a child focuses on something near for long periods of time, so it’s understandable that some may fear VR headsets will add to the problem. The screen is just two inches from the user’s eyes. But the technology is more complex than that.

When a kid uses a smartphone, they typically hold it very close to them and so they have to focus their eye close. You may think that with the VR headset, they’d have to do the same thing because the image is close to the eye, but VR headsets have optics in the setup that make the stimulus effectively far away, so, in terms of where the eye has to focus, you have to actually focus fairly far away to sharpen the image in the headset.

That means, VR headsets may be less of a problem than books or smartphones. But what about other risks that may be more serious for a child’s developing eyesight?

The virtual can detect real eyesight real eyesight problems early

VR headsets are essentially mimicking the way our eyes already work by showing each eye a slightly different image, which enables us to perceive death. VR devices can mimic the equipment used to treat Orthoptic problems, such as lazy eyes. So, there is a possibility that virtual reality headsets could help diagnose eye problems, and even treat them, rather than cause them.

Most known risks are shared with adults

If you get motion sickness while riding a roller coaster, there’s a great possibility that you’ll get sick on a virtual one. There are also problems when the visual images being presented by the VR headset are inconsistent.

Prof. Banks tells, “When you move your head and they try to update the image, so the image looks like it’s a stable part of the world. If they don’t get that right, if there’s a time lag or they don’t move the image the correct amount, people who are susceptible to motion sickness can be susceptible to nausea, headache, and stuff like that with VR headsets.”

Nausea isn’t the only danger that rises from the real and virtual worlds. Collisions with nearby objects are a concern. An adult will probably be okay if she walks face-first into a bookshelf, but a child might not. Some headsets try to account for this problem. The HTC Vive maps your environment with sensors and will warn you when you get to close something by having it bleed into the virtual world. But the risk remains, as the technology isn’t perfect, and kids don’t always heed warnings.

Finally, the virtual world can have a lingering impact on users after they’ve disconnected. As you use VR, your brain starts to adjust the peculiarities of the new experience — but when you return to the real world, you must adjust again.

Kids can use VR safely, but expect caution

It seems a shame to inflict a blanket ban on kids when there’s no real evidence that VR is any more dangerous than a book or a tablet. However, the lack of long term studies on the possible impact of VR headsets may make caution sensible, for the moment at least.

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This entry was posted by Staff Writer on Saturday, July 2, 2016 at 6:42:35 AM and is filed under Sweet Tech.

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