I haven’t read much about this topic yet, and honestly I’m still trying to understand it myself.
In the last few months I spent more time in Virtual Reality. Not only developing for it, but also playing games, experiencing everything I can that is out there right now.
Using a VR headset and especially playing room scale experiences is magical. It messes with your mind in ways you can’t really imagine until you tried it yourself.
What I quickly noticed after a couple hours of intense VR sessions is the feeling you get the hours after. Depending your experience in VR, this feeling can sometimes hold on for hours, especially if you’re new to VR.
And I’m not talking about motion sickness or any immediate effects that are easier to track down.
What I’m talking about is a weird sense of sadness & depressed feeling. Let me walk you through it:
Phase 1: The physical symptoms
In the first couple minutes after any VR experience you feel strange, almost like you’re detached from reality.
You will interact with physical objects with special care because for some reason you think that you can simply fly through them.
Interacting with your smartphone touch screen becomes almost comical because the interface seems so dull and disappointing to you. It’s like your fingers are passing through the touch screen when touching it.
This specific feeling usually fades within the first 1–2 hours and gets better over time. It’s almost like a little hangover, depending on the intensity of your VR experience.
This feeling can often also be related to your IPD (Interpupillary distance) setting. For example, your mind gets used to virtual distances that are slightly different to the real world, such as your arm length when a VR game is trying to simulate your arms & body interaction radius. Even if your IPD setting is as close to correct as it gets, it still will never be perfect.
Same goes with your Hz (refresh rate) setting and your latency that have a big impact on how well you feel during, and after your VR experience. But usually it’s easy to tell when these settings are off because you will feel very uncomfortable even during the VR session.
Even slight variations make your brain adjust to it, making it feel kinda strange when you go back to the real world. Objects start to appear closer to you and your vision might play games with moving objects. You certainly shouldn’t be driving a car or crossing busy streets right after a VR experience.
These sensations described above seem fairly normal to most VR users and usually fade away after a few hours. They also get better the more you’re used to using VR on a regular basis.
Phase 2: The Derealization
I start to feel better physically. Objects seem to be normal again, I don’t feel dizzy or anything. All symptoms I mentioned above are back to normal usually within 30–60 minutes.
But what stays is a strange feeling of sadness & disappointment when participating in the real world, usually on the same day. The sky seems less colorful and it just feels like I’m missing the “magic” (for the lack of a better word).
The intensity of this feeling is usually closely correlated to the length and kind of experience I had in VR, at least for me.
I think about it this way. I just spent a couple hours painting with fire or any material I want in a 3D space in Virtual Reality. I’m so confident & fluid using these VR tools, they feel almost native. I scale my environment up and down, rotate objects and teleport around my own dream world.
I feel like god for a couple hours, with magical and powerful tools right at my finger tips. I can do anything I want!
After leaving a world like this, the rest of the day in reality makes me kind of sad. I have no more super powers. I want to touch the sky, rotate the clouds, stretch them and paint on them. I feel deeply disturbed and often end up just sitting there, starring at a wall because I just don’t feel like doing anything else. I wouldn’t say I’m feeling depressed, but there is a lack of motivation and sad feeling in my chest.
Even more disturbing to me are first person shooter experiences such as Onward which is a first person shooter as close as it gets to reality. I’m usually fine with other shooter games that have some kind of sci-fi elements involved, but Onward mirrors a real life shooting scenario so close that it makes me sweat. Especially if you fully dive into it, no real life background sounds and full isolation, just you alone in a room.
Both experiences are wildly different. One I consider positive (drawing like god in a 3D world) and the other one I consider more shocking & negative (running around in a war zone shooting people)
“If you run from technology, it will chase you.”
-Robert M. Pirsig
Still, both experiences leave me in a strange state for the rest of the day. The first one makes me feel sad & disappointed in real life because I just got robbed of my super powers. The second one makes me feel more anxious because of it’s shocking content & realness.
And I’m saying all of this as someone who has played computer games almost all of his life. I’ve never felt like this playing Counterstrike 6 hours a day on average when I was a teenager.
Ultimately, the difference between Phase 1 and Phase 2 is that Phase one feels like I’m temporarily tripping, while Phase 2 feels painfully real and simply sad & disappointing.
I haven’t read much about this topic yet, but some conversations on the internet suggest that Virtual Reality can cause mild forms of derealization and/or depersonalization.
Pair it with mild anxiety disorder which more than 40 million people in the US alone suffer from, and you have a pretty explosive mix happening here. (I’d argue it’s way more than 40 million reported cases)
To sum it up, I want to leave you with the following thoughts:
1. Augmented Reality mixed with Virtual Reality will probably help lower this issue. With our minds in full isolation in VR there doesn’t seem to be any benefit right now that we can apply to our real physical surroundings. AR can help bridge that connection, so we’re still in Real Life with one foot.
2. I plan to experiment more with different kind of experiences and VR session length and how much impact it has on the intensity of my “VR Hangover”. I know about the short term symptoms, but like everyone else I’m very interested in the long term effects in our brain. I should also mention that I weirdly enough enjoy this experience, even though it feels very alien to me.
3. You might find it interesting to read more about Derealizationand this interesting paper on “Virtual Reality Induces Dissociation and Lowers Sense of Presence in Objective Reality”
4. Funny enough, recent tests & research has shown that it all can also go the other way. Showing VR can significantly reduce symptons of depression or anxiety.
Who knows, maybe in the future we will treat the symptoms with the same tools that created them. Anxiety created through VR will be fixed through VR. I’m excited.
PS: I’m always happy to hear your thoughts, experiences or anything you like to share with me. The best way to do this is on Twitter @vanschneider
Thank you for reading,
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Tobias is a Designer & Maker + Co-Founder of Semplice, a portfolio platform for designers. Also host of the show NTMY — Previously Art Director & Design Lead at Spotify & Board of Directors AIGA New York.