VR developers are getting good enough at fooling your brain in virtual reality that they also have to start worrying about your safety. Scientists and researchers really have no idea whether and how long-term exposure to VR changes the brain. This begs a discussion about responsibility as to what we create. There are decades worth of research into how motion simulators affect people, etc. and we have some insight into the psychology of the software interaction, and the physiology of the how the body and mind react.
What we're able to do with the technology that has come available in the last couple years is exciting, and so much more impact than other forms of media. We need to think long and hard about what long-term exposure looks like.
The way VR fools your brain into thinking that a virtual space is real is by knowing what pieces your brain uses to construct reality, and then giving your brain the same information, presented in virtual reality. The vestibular system in our ears tells our brain about our position in 3D space by helping us achieve balance. But there's a lot more to it than motion sickness, which Chris Dede from Harvard University, says affects roughly 3% of VR users.
With recent mapping data from the Human Connectome Project revealing 180 distinct regions of the brain, imagine what's possible when you consider that VR is being used for pain reduction, PTSD, and social anxieties like fear of speaking.
The key to achieving these goals is to first understand the senses that the human brain uses to intuit what is real, in the real world, and then give those senses the same types of data, but in the virtual world.
Creators need to take great care in how they prepare users for their experiences, something that so far I don't see enough of yet. Because your brain can be so thoroughly fooled into thinking the virtual world is the real world, those who experience VR may need to be warned about the content that awaits them. First impressions are important, something scary in VR could be offputting at least and in worse cases disturbing.
Adding enough sensory and directional data in virtual experiences is important not only in keeping the brain believing that the virtual world is real so that we can enact situations to enlighten and educate ourselves but also to avoid potentially negative or even traumatic experiences unintended in VR.
At a recent Cannes Lions Festival appearance, Google VR vice president Clay Bavor said: “When you look at your brain under an fMRI, remembering and experiencing look very similar.”
They also impact you similarly.
Please also read our white paper: "Using Virtual Reality for the Reduction of Anxiety: An Introduction to How Immersive VR Can Improve the Treatment of Anxiety"