Virtual reality (VR) technology can transport us to sci-fi battlefields, underwater, outer space and beyond. With a host of new games, apps and headsets offering an engaging three-dimensional (3D) experience for users, it’s not surprising that many families are embracing VR technology. But what impact does VR gear have on the eyes? While the technology is relatively new and no long-term studies have been done, there are a few things we do know.
Immersive, 3D images
VR headsets create a life-size, 3D virtual environment without the boundaries of a screen. They mimic the way our eyes already work by showing each eye a slightly different image, so we perceive depth. VR headsets use either two feeds sent to one display or two LCD displays, one for each eye. They also have lenses which are placed between your eyes and the pixels. The lenses focus and reshape the picture for each eye and create a stereoscopic 3D image. VR headsets provide an increased field of view (width of the picture) to create a sense of immersion. Additionally, the headsets make use of “head tracking”—shifting the picture in front of you as you look up, down and side to side.
Why do manufacturers set age limits?
Most VR headset manufacturers say the device is not suitable for children under age 12 or 13. Although there are no long-term studies, ophthalmologists agree there is no reason to be concerned that VR headsets will damage eye development, health or function. “Age limitations for VR technology might make sense for content, but as far as we know this technology poses no threat to the eyes,” said Stephen Lipsky, MD, a pediatric ophthalmologist who practices in Georgia.
Eye Strain and Fatigue
Staring at a VR headset screen—or any digital device—for a prolonged period may cause eye strain or fatigue. That’s because you tend blink less when using a digital screen device than you normally do. This can cause the front surface of your eye to dry out and feel fatigued.
Dizziness and Motion Sickness
Viewing an image involving motion gives the brain the same visual signals it receives during actual physical motion. That’s why use of VR headsets can lead to dizziness. If you’re susceptible to motion sickness on a rollercoaster or boat, you’ll likely be susceptible to virtual motion sickness as well.
What if You Have an Eye Condition?
Individuals who have amblyopia (an imbalance in visual strength between the two eyes), strabismus (misaligned eyes), or other conditions that inhibit focusing, depth perception or normal 3D vision may not experience the 3D effects of VR headsets. That does not mean that vision disorders can be caused by VR headsets. However, children or adults who have these disorders may be more likely to experience headaches and/or eye fatigue when using VR gear. If you wear glasses to correct a refractive error or eye disorder, you should keep your glasses on while using a VR headset.