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Spending Time in VR Can Have Real-World Consequences

An injured man holding a VR headset
Elnur / Shutterstock.com

Virtual Reality (VR) is becoming more mainstream. Headset sales are increasing yearly as the business, research, and entertainment worlds continue to explore what the medium can offer. Unfortunately, there may be times when the headset comes off, but bits of the virtual world continues to linger.

This can range from genuine physical injuries you’ve picked up while fighting virtual opponents—to strange, initially worrying, effects on your brain. So, what could happen? Is it dangerous? And is there anything you can do to avoid it? Let’s take a look at a few ways VR can affect its users both physically and mentally.

The Physical Side

Man in a VR headset posing with his arm out.

VR can be genuinely dangerous. So dangerous, in fact, there’s an entire subreddit, aptly named VR to ER, dedicated to cataloging the various encounters VR users’ hands, limbs, or heads have had with their walls and furniture.

If you boil it down, VR users are essentially blindfolding themselves and flailing around wildly. Accidents are bound to happen. I have a fairly generous play space, around 7 feet by 10 feet if you count the bit of arm room over the couch I’ve given myself. And I’ve hit walls, desks, and that very same couch more times than I can count.

Most of the time, though, it is just minor bruising or a set of scuffed knuckles. The worst I’ve had was a fractured metacarpal—the result of a right cross that, along with finding my opponent’s nose, also found my living room’s door frame. I finished the fight left-handed, got my wife to drive me to urgent care, and spent a few weeks in a splint. All in all, not that bad an injury and not at all uncommonOther people aren’t so lucky and have ended up taking a tumble; a hand injury will always be preferable to a head injury.

If you care about the physical things you have in the real world, you should probably keep them clear of the play area, too. Or you might end up like this poor chap who went face first through a TV. Injuring other people is also a possibility, so make sure you let everyone you live with know you’ll be flailing around a room blindfolded; no one wants to catch grandma with a haymaker or drop a small child with a left hook.

And, of course, there are the various aches you will get from being physically active. Depending on your physical condition: Your back and feet may hurt from being stood up for long stretches, and your neck may hurt from strapping a 2lb box to the front of your face.

Even if you’re in good physical shape, you may still get the odd ache from using muscles you don’t normally use. One of the muscles in my right forearm hurts because of a weird motion one game had me repeatedly doing, and games that require you to physically crouch while sneaking are hell on your thighs.

The Mental Side

After images of VR people overlayed in a real life setting
ysuel / Shutterstock.com

This is where things start to get weird. The VR screen door effect is a pretty well-documented result of the current hardware’s resolution. Because magnified versions of a headset’s screen are so close to the player’s eye, the player can see the tiny gaps between the headset’s pixels, which gives the effect of looking at the world through a screen door.

The more someone plays, and the more immersed they get, the less noticeable the effect is. Basically, a near-invisible mesh on screen is the least of someone’s worries when a primal part of their brain actually thinks zombies are trying to gnaw their face off. Which makes it even stranger that this effect can follow you back into the real world.

It happened to me pretty early in my dabbles with VR and hasn’t really happened since. This sort of lies halfway between the afterimage effect and full-on palinopsia, as I’d sometimes get “screen doored” or “gridded” a few hours after playing. Usually while relaxing on the couch or bed and not really focusing on anything.

Similarly, both the Oculus’ “Guardian Grid”—A blue net that pops up if you get too close to the edge of your defined play area—and the tunnel vision effect some games add in to reduce motion sickness have both followed me back to the real world.

Slightly more worrying are the times my brain has totally forgotten I was back in the real world. There was a time I took a break from a VR session and went to talk to my wife in the other room. When I went to leave, it took me a couple of seconds to remember I had to move with my legs and not a thumbstick. My thumb even flicked in the direction I wanted to go once or twice. Ironically, this is the mirror opposite of one of my earlier VR mishaps where I moved with my legs and not a thumbstick and ended up tripping on a nightstand.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who has tried to use VR controls in the real world. Other users have tried clipping through fences, attempted to teleport short distances, and forgotten they can’t use telekinesis in real life.

This can all be attributed to the Tetris Effect. Basically, if you devote a lot of brainpower to something, that thing will imprint on your brain. Like a lot of silly things, it could also be due to good old-fashioned tiredness.

Perhaps a bit more pleasant is a strange floating effect you feel while laying down and closing your eyes after a VR session. Some people get a similar feeling of movement while stood up with their eyes open, which may be a less pleasant experience.

There are also reports of people not feeling like their actual hands are real following a VR session. This is an example of the Body Transfer Illusion—something you might have experienced outside of VR if you’ve ever visited a science museum with a rubber hand illusion exhibit.

So, Is This Worth Worrying About

A black VR headset on a black background.

Head injuries are always something to worry about, so be careful there. A lot of physical injuries can probably be prevented by playing carefully and ensuring you have adequate space. The trouble is that VR is so immersive that the careful part can easily go out of the window. Hence the videos of people flying headbutting TVs, Christmas trees, and walls. Minor things like scuffed knuckles heal. Aches go away, and your body tends to adapt to its circumstances, so the achy bits will probably get stronger and more suited to long VR sessions.

With some things like VR’s impact on eyesight, we don’t really know. Studies are ongoing, especially regarding VR’s impact on children, so it’s worth sticking to headset manufacturers’ age restriction recommendations for the time being.

Other side effects aren’t that worrying. The effects of motion sickness pass quite quickly once you stop doing the thing that made you sick—VR in this case. Symptoms like seeing the screen door effect in real life or that floating feeling when you close your eyes tend to disappear once your brain rights itself. From personal experience and from all accounts I can find, you get used to VR after a couple of weeks. If you take a long break, some of the effects may come back until you readjust. So, to summarize: You can get really badly hurt in VR, but be careful, and you should be fine.

Dave McQuilling Dave McQuilling
Dave McQuilling has spent over 10 years writing about almost everything, but technology has always been one of his main interests. He has previously worked for newspapers, magazines, radio stations, websites, and television stations in both the US and Europe. Read Full Bio »