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Virtual Reality: Bad For The Eye?

By Essilor News

Immersive, all-enveloping virtual worlds are the holy grail of the digital experience and lately, are a big focus in the news. The major players in the burgeoning virtual reality, or VR, headset business include recent upstart Oculus and electronics giants Sony, Samsung, and HTC. Google has even gotten into the game with a cardboard VR headset that utilizes your smartphone for a low-cost entry into virtual experiences.

These awkward-looking headsets track your head movements in three dimensions to help plunge you into a computer-generated simulation of an environment, whether it's blasting aliens in a distant galaxy or practicing a triple-bypass surgery on a computer-generated patient.

VR headsets contain two small LCD monitors, each projected at one eye, creating a stereoscopic effect which gives users the illusion of depth. The proximity of the screens to the eyes has given some experts pause, speculating on what types of eye disorders may be created by fully immersing yourself into these intense ocular exercises for long periods of time. Eye strain is likely whenever you are focusing on one object for an extended amount of time, as in watching a long movie or staring at your computer or smartphone all day.

Can VR headsets cause digital eye strain, too?

As most of the early immersive VR environments are going to be focused on video gaming markets, both mobile and console-based, kids could be in the most danger. The market is filled with young gamers-an estimated 26 percent of all gamers are under 18-and focus, tracking, and depth perception is stilldeveloping into middle childhood. This could put children at risk for developing early myopia, or nearsightedness, and digital eye strain. Easy ways to combat this ocular stress include having your child's vision checked before school starts, encouraging 20-second breaks from screens every 20 minutes and making longer breaks where they perform physical activities mandatory.

Other concerns for adults include feelings of nausea and disorientation called virtual reality sickness, and problems with the 3D stereoscopic effect causing a disruption of our vergence, or the simultaneous movement of our eyes to keep binocular vision steady. The sickness is a result of poorly rendered VR experiences and is almost eliminated at this point in the technology's development, plus the adjustment of our eyes to maintain binocular vision could actually make them stronger.

A company called Vivid Vision is taking advantage of this self-correction behavior by releasing a new system for eye clinics called Vivid Vision for Amblyopia. Their setup melds their specially built games with a powerful computer, touchscreen monitor, Oculus Rift VR headset, and a Leap Motion and Xbox controller to fix amblyopia, a condition where the vision in one eye is compromised because the eye and brain aren't communicating properly, and strabismus, or crossed eyes.

With all of the possible negative effects VR might wreak on our vision, the fine-tuning and further development of virtual reality systems and headsets could actually make our eyes stronger. Who knows what other interesting and groundbreaking applications VR might come up with to enhance vision down the road? Special attention should be paid to the time spend in virtual reality for younger enthusiasts, similar to the restrictions already recommended for kids' screen time.

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