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Virtual reality (VR) is an exciting technology that delivers applications in education, healthcare and entertainment. However, the unique visual demands of VR have made some people wonder if it might be bad for their eyes.
VR use has been linked to some eye problems, including eye strain and heterophoria. Its effects are treatable and can be prevented by taking adequate breaks. If you follow manufacturers’ guidelines, you should be able to safely use VR without hurting your eyes.
What Is Considered VR?
Virtual reality (VR) is the use of computer technology to create a fully immersive experience for the user. It is often used to create 3D interactive environments, but interactivity is not required.
VR is typically accessed using a headset that tracks your head and eye movements. Some systems also use other peripherals (like gloves) to simulate additional senses.
Some common applications of VR include:
- Education, including experiential simulations to reinforce key concepts
- Vocational training, including hands-on simulations of specific tasks and work environments
- Healthcare, including mental health treatment, physical rehabilitation and vision therapy
- Entertainment, including games, movies, television shows, and other media
VR is distinct from augmented reality (AR). AR projects virtual elements onto the space around you, enhancing the environment you are in with new images and interactive features. VR creates a completely new environment that is fully virtual and has no relationship to your real surroundings.
Effects of VR on Your Eyes
VR use is linked to the following eye problems:
- Eye strain
- Dry eyes
- Visually induced motion sickness
- Heterophoria (when the eyes point in different directions at rest)
All four problems grow more likely with extended use. They also can become more severe over time.
VR Headsets and Eye Strain
Using VR technology for long periods of time has been shown to cause to eye strain. The symptoms of eye strain usually grow more severe the longer you use VR uninterrupted.
Some scientists have hypothesized that VR is prone to causing eye strain because of how close a VR headset display is to the user’s eyes. Some manufacturers are experimenting with different headset designs and lenses to mitigate the effects of this problem.
Problems Caused by Eye Strain
Some of the problems cause by eye strain include:
- Eye pain
- Neck, shoulder and back pain
- Sensitivity to light
- Double vision
- Blurry vision
- Dry eyes
- Watery eyes
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty keeping your eyes open
These issues are temporary and will go away once your eyes have been given a chance to rest.
VR Distortion and Eyesight
VR needs to simulate a wide field of vision to create a truly immersive environment. This is best achieved using a curved screen that matches the person’s typical visual radius. However, this type of screen is expensive and difficult to integrate into a headset display.
Instead, most VR systems use a flat screen and distort the image slightly to simulate the necessary curve. Your eyes work hard to translate this distortion into a realistic field of vision. This may be one reason why VR use often leads to eye strain.
Some scientists theorize that this distortion effect may also contribute to the development of heterophoria (the inability to keep your eyes aligned when they are not focused). Heterophoria can make it difficult for your eyes to work together to produce accurate binocular vision.
Over time, it may cause problems like headaches, dizziness and poor balance. Doctors treat them with vision therapy or prism glasses.
Dry Eyes and VR
VR has been shown to slow users’ blinking and lead to dry eyes. This may be because of the increased concentration necessary to make sense of the projected image.
Dry eyes are a common problem for any screen-related activity, but evidence suggests that VR use may be even more likely to dry out your eyes than other types of screen time. In a 2021 study, participants who used VR technology for 2 continuous hours reported more severe dry eye symptoms than participants who used a smartphone for the same amount of time.
How to Avoid Eye Strain
To minimize your risk of eye strain:
- Blink more frequently. Blinking keeps your eyes moist and prevents dry eye symptoms from developing.
- Take breaks. Giving your eyes a chance to rest after a long period of VR use will prevent them from working too hard.
- Use artificial tears. These lubricating eye drops can supplement your body’s natural supply of tears and help keep your eyes from drying out.
- Wear your glasses or contact lenses when using VR. Using this technology without your corrective eyewear will force your eyes to work harder and increase your risk of developing eye strain.
How VR May Benefit Eyes
Scientists are exploring the possibility of using VR as a clinical tool for treating vision problems. Clinical studies are currently being conducted to determine whether VR can be used to improve hand-eye coordination and visual focus.
Because VR creates the illusion of depth by projecting a slightly different image in front of each eye, many clinicians are most interested in using it to treat binocular vision problems. Applications such as Vivid Vision are designed to take advantage of this feature and are currently in use in vision therapy programs all over the country. These applications can be used to treat problems such as:
- Strabismus (crossed eyes)
- Convergence insufficiency (eyes that cannot work together to focus on objects that are close to them)
- Depth perception problems
VR is also being studied as a potential treatment for amblyopia (lazy eye) in children.
VR is usually used in conjunction with other treatments, such as eye patches or special glasses. It is rarely used as a standalone treatment for any eye condition. This may change as further research is conducted to measure and refine VR’s effectiveness in clinical settings.
Children and VR
No current evidence exists that VR causes lasting harm to children’s eyes. However, VR is a relatively new technology and not much medical research is available about VR’s short- and long-term health impact on children.
Most VR system manufacturers recommend that their products only be used by children aged 12 and up. Abiding by these guidelines is the best way to protect your child’s eyes until further research has proven that VR is safe for them to use.
To prevent VR from impacting your eye health, moderate your use of the technology. VR systems manufacturers like Oculus Rift currently recommend that users take a 10- to 15-minute break for every 30 minutes they spend using VR.
When to See a Doctor
Contact your eye doctor if you experience any lasting eye problems after using VR. You may have an underlying eye condition that should be treated before you resume VR use.
Does VR damage eyes?
There is currently no evidence that VR can permanently damage your eyes. Some studies have linked extended VR use to the development of heterophoria, a condition which causes your eyes to point in different directions at rest. This condition may cause long-term vision problems, but it can be treated using prism glasses or visual therapy.
Can VR make you blind?
No, VR cannot make you blind. You may experience some eyestrain after using VR for long periods, but this is temporary.
How long should you play VR a day?
Most manufacturers recommend that VR systems be used for no more than 30 minutes at a time. As long as you take a break every 30 minutes, you can play as long as you like. Do not resume using VR if you are still feeling unwell after taking the recommended breaks.
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