NetGuide NZ - Are virtual reality headsets bad for our eyes?

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Are virtual reality headsets bad for our eyes?

As virtual reality (VR) headsets become more widespread, it's important for people to consider how they could negatively impact eyesight, according to a New Zealand optometrist.

Alan Saks, from Mortimer Hirst Eyecare in Auckland, says the growing use of VR headsets could potentially cause long-term damage to our eyesight including, myopia, retinal damage and macular degeneration.

It’s predicted that augmented and VR hardware will become a $5.8 billion global market in the next three years.

Saks says as the major electronic manufacturers develop lighter and more functional headsets there is an increasingly rapid consumer uptake, yet the long-term impact of these devices on our eyesight is still not fully understood.

In fact, several new models of the technology are already available in the New Zealand market.

However, already VR headsets have been known to cause a number of issues including ‘accommodative convergence problems’, and limited research has been done into the long term effects of these devices.

“Virtual reality works by tricking your brain into believing that you’re seeing a physical depth that isn’t actually there, but the fact that the screen is in reality only a few centimetres from the eyeball confuses the eye’s natural tracking and focusing processes when users try to readjust to their spatial environment.

“These processes normally work together, but with most VR headsets, because the object appears far away but the screen is only centimetres from the eyeball it creates a conflict for the eyes and visual system,” he says.

Saks says there are also issues with people who do not have binocular vision, which allows us to use both eyes in conjunction with each other - for instance, some people have problems viewing 3D movies.

Without knowledge of the long-term effects of VR headset use, a proliferation of the headsets could drive up myopia cases, Saks says.

Myopia, or nearsightedness, means the eye does not refract the light precisely onto the retina - which allows it to see clearly - but instead focuses light in front of the retina.

Therefore, distant objects will appear blurry but close objects will usually be clear, except in extreme cases.

According to Saks, myopia cases are already at epidemic levels in some Asian countries and on the rise in New Zealand and around the world.

“There is also a risk that by increasing the concentration of high energy blue light a person is exposed to that it will alter their normal sleep cycles and risk causing retinal damage and macular degeneration (a loss of vision in the centre of a person’s field of vision),” Saks says.

While VR headsets have existed since the late 1960s, they have not yet experienced widespread uptake because the older headsets were generally too heavy to be used for long periods and technological limits like slow motion-to-video reaction times caused nausea in users, Saks says.

Modern technology has overcome these problems, enabling the creation of lighter and more responsive headsets that seem set for widespread market adoption.

Some of these headsets come with warnings that the device is unsuitable for people younger than 13-years old, and to stop use if the wearer experiences symptoms ranging from eye strain and motion sickness to involuntary movements, twitching and even seizures.

While these effects are usually short term, it is not known if VR headsets could cause longer-term issues to a person’s vision, particularly with repeated heavy use, Saks says.

Until the long-term impacts are known, people should avoid heavy use and if they experience headaches or eyestrain to stop use and seek optometric advice, he says.

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