The first time Christopher Crescitelli contracted what he calls “VR arm syndrome,” he stopped playing one of his favorite virtual reality games for five days. “My arms feel disconnected from my body, almost like they were my virtual arms,” he says. “When I first started experiencing this, I thought, ‘Did I break myself?’”
Crescitelli is a VR designer and developer, the owner of Las Vegas–based Dreamland Entertainment, and the founder of VR Fest, a sprawling multiday event now in its fifth year. Yet even Crescitelli, a person with more than 10 years of experience with VR, says he occasionally has to force himself out of the virtual realm to ensure he doesn’t suffer from headset fatigue (or VR arm syndrome).
Virtual reality is a modern-day beacon of escapism — a way to fully immerse yourself in other worlds — and it’s seeing unprecedented applications. VR-based exposure therapy, for instance — in which patients are exposed to the sources of their fears — is already changing how some psychologists treat patients. VR is finding myriad applications in health care. And there’s seemingly no limit to its use in games and, yes, porn.
The market, no surprise, is exploding, with some industry groups estimating a $60 billion global market by 2022. In late 2017, sales of virtual reality headsets exceeded 1 million in one quarter, with Sony, Oculus, and HTC leading the pack. In 2018, as prices for virtual reality hardware drop even further, nearly 8 million units are expected to sell.
As business booms, however, people who are using the tech are reporting a growing number of physical side effects — like VR arm, but worse: eye strain, dizziness, headaches, nausea, and even dissociative experiences. VR companies recommend that people take frequent breaks and moderate their VR time when they’re first starting out. “As you become accustomed to the virtual reality experience, you can begin increasing the amount of time you use Daydream View,” reads one line of the health and safety information included with Google’s VR platform.
But what happens when it’s your job to build these escapist technologies? The potential health risks for everyday consumers are compounded for those who make VR products for a living.
“We’re on the lookout to see if there are any long-term consequences.”
When VR bigwig Jeremy Bailenson founded Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, in 2003, two items were even more important than the VR equipment he was using: “We had to keep a bucket in the lab and a mop nearby,” Bailenson says. Today, he institutes a strict 20-minute limit on headset time for people in his lab.
These health effects produce unique challenges for VR developers. “We have to understand not just the good but also the downsides of this technology. There are a lot of questions we need to answer,” Bailenson says. “The whole point of VR is it takes you out of your space, but you can’t be doing that for many hours a day.”