Virtual Reality addiction threat prompts cautious approach as VR nears 'smartphone-like' take-off

The technological world may be on the cusp of a revolution, the extent of which is predicted to mimic the take-up of the smartphone in the late 2000s, but some experts have urged caution as its addictive qualities and long-term effects remain unknown.

Virtual Reality, or VR, has finally become commercially accessible — a full-immersion kit with motion controllers is less than $1,000 — putting hardware and software tools in the hands of gamers and independent game developers for the first time.

But it is the appeal of this technology across the broader population rather than just the gaming community that has people like Microsoft multimedia and interaction researcher Mar Gonzalez Franco excited.

"We [the general public] will buy VR devices in shopping malls the way we buy smartphones today," she said.

"I think it will be adopted pretty fast."

Applications outside gaming will include social media, virtual lives, movies, news, virtual conference hook-ups, live music experiences and, of course, pornography.

The VR come down

Late last year, Ms Gonzalez Franco reportedly predicted future VR units would be akin to experiencing powerful hallucinations — once they started including other senses, such as touch.

This reporter recently had his first experience with a game called First Contact, and could not help but notice a mild sensation of deflation with the real world on exit — a sensation that lasted about an hour.

In the narcotics world this sensation is called the come down and can lead to repeat usage and, on occasion, addiction or dependency.

Federation University Australia clinical psychology senior lecturer Vasileios Stavropoulos said research on addictive internet behaviour was largely inconsistent until 2015 when the American Psychiatric Association introduced the concept of internet gaming disorder.

Dr Stavropoulos said newly diagnosed cases "appear to have been increasing worldwide" and with the advance of VR technology that "definitely" had addictive potential, "we should be cautious".

"We're not only talking about virtual reality, we're also talking about virtual personality," he said.

"Scientifically, it's what we call the compensatory internet use hypothesis, which basically suggests that those who are not fulfilled here in this world, tend to escape in another world where they might feel more fulfilled."

He said it was the fact people could experience themselves differently online, build their ideal selves through an avatar and emotionally connect with a virtual world that might offer a better reality than reality, that would attract addiction.

Ms Gonzalez Franco said that "unlike drugs or alcohol, VR doesn't alter our higher cognitive functions".

She said it would allow people to "relate to distant life perspectives", such as experiencing a different socioeconomic status in a virtual Second Life-like world, or a different racial status or gender — the fodder of several science fiction films.

"VR experiences will be more meaningful than any other previous medium of experiencing content," Ms Gonzalez Franco said.

Facebook to take social media to the next level

A virtual world launched in 2003 called Second Life allowed users to create virtual representations of themselves that interacted with other users, participating in group activities, trade and building an economy — it even had its own currency interchangeable with real-world currency.

University of South Australia School of Information Technology and Mathematical Sciences Professor Bruce Thomas said it was this social aspect, rather than gaming, that primarily drove Facebook to buy VR developer Oculus Rift.

He said VR would give rise to positive applications, such as allowing isolated people like the elderly to participate in communal dining with others online.

"And wouldn't it be great if you could share a meal with your family in some place you holidayed 30 years ago," Professor Thomas said.

He said online gambling would cause more harm than VR and said the same people who were addicted to online gaming would be addicted to VR.

"I don't think there's anything inherent about VR that makes it more addictive," he said.

"People are already spending a lot of time in front of a computer."

Eye mechanism mismatch a cause for concern

Professor Thomas said there had been no studies on the long-term effects of using VR, but he had some concern about the conflict it created with eye vergence-accommodation.

The human eye has two mechanisms, vergence movement — the simultaneous movement of both eyes in opposite directions, and accommodation — the lenses of an eye changing shape to focus on things at distance and up close.

Stereoscopic VR creates a conflict for this mechanism, because everything is focused at a certain distance despite a stereo image going into both eyes to give a depth cue.

"In the late 90s we [UniSA] had a monocular display — one of the first head-mount displays," Professor Thomas said.

"Somebody [who tried VR] played for a Norwood baseball team. We made sure he didn't drive right away, like they told us to, but when he went to practise that night, he just couldn't hit a baseball all night.

"It wasn't a permanent effect and it's not proving anything, but there's something going on."

Ms Gonzalez Franco pointed to the side effects that some people experienced from VR as being a detractor from its addictive qualities.

She said that unlike those addicted to TV and other mediums, VR was self-experiential and people "will get physically tired, in the same way that going for a walk gets you tired".

"And I think this is something very good about VR, so people will reduce their exposures and spend more time in reality," she said.

This factor is certainly true of other users of VR, who told the ABC that after about an hour of immersion it was common to feel tired from exertion.