Beyond the question of safety (Oculus’ official recommendation is that children under 10 not use the Oculus Rift) and the fact that the child’s IPD is probably too low to properly see through the Rift, one has to wonder what psychological impact virtual reality might have when used from an early age.
Update: video was taken down. I’ve added a screenshot up top. The video only consisted of about 30 seconds of use of the Rift by the child looking around in the Tuscany demo and was merely a jumping off point for the discussion below.
As a gamer from a young age, I’ve watched as non-gamers attempt to blame violence on videogames. In the early 2000s, several court cases involved defenses based on the notion that the accused thought they were in The Matrix. While I can personally attest to never having mixed up reality and videogames or movies, and believe that blaming videogames on violence is largely a scapegoat, things might be different if children are exposed to virtual reality from a very young age.
Born into Virtual Reality
Back in 2011, I put the question to Jim Blascovich, a professor of psychology, director of the Research Center for Virtual Environments and Behavior at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and co-author of the book Infinite Reality:
…do you think that if someone was raised from a young age by living in a virtual world with immersive VR technology, that they would believe that world to be the “real” world (much like the Matrix, or Inception)?
Blascovich told me that yes, it is plausible that someone could grasp onto a virtual world as their ‘reality’, and think of the real world as something else.
I also asked whether or not the complexity (graphics, feedback, etc) of the simulation mattered, or if a person would recognize it as their reality regardless. He told me that so long as they were born within the simulation “they would adapt,” and recognize the virtual world as reality.
Being born into a VR world a la Matrix is way out there, but we still need to contend with the potential for psychological impact of normal VR use by children.
Immersive VR and Its Potential Impact on Children
Let’s say that we’re able to create HMDs that are safe for children of any age (from a developmental perspective). Many of you reading this blog will recognize that VR is likely to become a powerful education tool—one day we might let our children spend extended periods of time in VR.
And while many might say, ‘I played videogames as a kid and I’m perfectly normal!’, it’s important to recognize the difference between regular games and immersive VR.
It speaks to the immersiveness of virtual reality that people become nauseous; it’s different than looking at a screen.
It’s not the graphics that convince us that we’re part of the game… it’s not even just the wide field of view (after all, many people go to IMAX theaters with plenty wide fields of view and few have issues with nausea). It’s the combination of wide field of view and headtracking that sets our mind in a mode to perceive that we’re actually in a different place.
I should stop to say that ‘feeling’ like you’re there and ‘thinking’ you’re there are two important distinctions—the former being that you ‘know’, logically, that you aren’t actually there, but your body feels like it is; the latter being that you actually believe you are there.
Even if our current technology is still only at the ‘feeling’ stage, we’re looking at a completely different scenario than a youngster of two decades ago playing a side-scrolling 2D game on Super Nintendo.
I’m no psychologist—and I write this article mainly as an exercise in curiosity—but my layman hypothesis is that priming children’s minds to accept virtual places as real, while their brains are still developing, could have unforeseen implications.