Lee Weller has worked in information technology since the early 2000s and now specialises in cyber security. From childhood he has always been fascinated by tech and is still an avid gamer. He believes technology can unlock amazing possibilities but we must understand the risks and never lose our connection with nature.
Virtual Reality: A guide for parents
Virtual Reality (VR) allows individuals to put on a special headset and step into a virtual world. VR technology has been around for decades in various forms but it was only in 2016 with the release of a headset called the Oculus Rift that these immersive experiences finally became believable. Many popular YouTubers regularly share their VR experiences and as a result the technology is becoming more attractive to a younger audience. Research into the lasting effects of VR use by adolescents is still lacking however in this blog we will attempt to explore the positives and potential negatives of this emerging technology. Augmented Reality (AR) titles such as the popular Pokemon Go add cameras to overlay computer generated content with a real world backdrop. We do not cover AR in this blog but keep in mind some VR headsets also cater for these experiences.
Supervision Concerns with VR Headsets
In VR, the user basically has a screen strapped to their head, holds controllers and usually wears headphones for 3D audio. Most headsets allow for this content to be displayed simultaneously on a connected computer monitor or TV. It is important for the parent to familiarise themselves with this functionality as without it they would have no way of knowing what the child is doing or hear the conversations being had with other players online.
Social VR Experiences
The act of putting on a headset and shutting out the physical world might make VR seem like a completely solitary activity but this isn't always the case. Some VR games such as 'The Playroom VR' (free download on PSVR) make clever use of traditional screens and controllers to allow other people in the room to join the same game as the VR player. Then there is the very unique social experience of meeting other VR users over the internet. I recall my first online VR experience was the game ‘Werewolves Within’. In front of me was a cozy campfire, looking down it appeared I was wearing a rather fetching dress, then turning right my gaze was met with a cartoony looking man in period costume who had noted my presence. He greeted me and instantly my brain told me, you are now conversing with an actual human - the fact he looked like a 17th century hand puppet was completely irrelevant.
This is what's known as ‘sense of presence’ and what really sets VR apart from any other technology. This is aided by the fact head movements picked up by sensors in the headset are mapped perfectly to on screen characters and the avatars realistically blink and fidget.
Feeling like you are actually there seems to make players more responsible for their online actions and as a result VR tends to have far less toxic behaviour than standard games. Conversely a child who finds it difficult to interact socially may also feel the same anxiety here, in a game of ‘Werewolves Within’ you must speak but in other titles some players choose to remain silent. The sense of presence could also amplify the effects of cyber bullying.
Online experiences such as Rec Room or VR Chat allow players to talk and play with people from all over the world but should be monitored by parents. Rec Room specifically has junior account options to limit certain interactions for under 13s.
VR Age Restrictions
Some VR content is not suitable for younger audiences and software age limits are labelled in a similar fashion to the more traditional platforms. Less straightforward are the rules surrounding the hardware required to play this content and age limits differ between manufacturers. The Google cardboard is a cheap headset you slide a phone into and accommodates the youngest audience with ages 7+ so long as they are supervised by an adult. PSVR for the Playstation 4 states it is “not for use by children under the age of 12” and the PC headsets such as Oculus Rift have similar age restrictions. These older age limits are likely to do with the design of the headsets, some of which are quite heavy or do not have movable lenses for customising interpupillary distance (IPD).
The two main VR health concerns that keep popping up are eyesight and balance/nausea issues. Staring at VR displays for extended periods can lead to headaches and sore eyes and it is advisable to take breaks more regularly than in traditional games. Some people feel “travel sick” when playing games that involve moving around the virtual space without physically moving themselves. This can be avoided by playing the multitude of titles experienced from a static position or tweaking the comfort settings found in the options menu of many games. UK based Child research company Dubit released a report in 2017 exploring the effects of VR on 8 to 12 year olds, and also discussed what the findings might mean for under 8’s. They found no negative effects from short-term play for children’s visual acuity, and little difference between pre- and post-VR play in stereoacuity and balance tests.
A surprising benefit of VR is that the physicality lends itself perfectly to fitness titles. A number of boxing games exist that have players throwing and dodging punches, working the muscles, increasing heart rate and often leaving players in a sweat. Experts also predict VR could eventually replace traditional computer monitors greatly reducing neck and back pain as a result.
Children are becoming increasingly interested in the possibilities of Virtual Reality for play and exploration but with minimal research available deciding whether or not to allow your child to use VR can be a daunting prospect. In my experience, children who do have access to VR use it sparingly and will still spend the majority of their gaming time on other platforms. Visiting a Virtual Reality arcade or a friend who owns a headset can be a good way to test the technology before buying. If you do decide to buy, parents should understand the available comfort/safety options, insist on regular breaks and monitor online interactions.