Virtual Reality and Its Impact On Our Health
Virtual Reality is here
In the 1984 movie, The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg/terminator character would scan his surroundings and receive a computerized situation analysis along with suggestions for next steps. Those scenes may have been our first glimpse into what augmented reality (AR) may eventually develop into.
It is interesting that the timing of this movie falls in the “innovation trigger” stage for something called “Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies.” This cycle suggests that technology goes through 5 stages: the innovation trigger, the peak of inflated expectations, the trough of disillusionment, the slope of enlightenment and the plateau of productivity. AR and virtual reality (VR) are on current evidence, now heading up the slope of enlightenment. So while AR and VR seem a bit futuristic, both technologies will likely be arriving in every home sooner, rather than later.
The Impact of VR headsets
The question that eye care providers need to ask however, is: What new challenges will AR and VR bring with them to eye care?
The Google Glass Explorer program which put a digital screen at the spectacle plane, less than an inch from the eye, was a small test of AR technology, and it is coming back. A statement by Google contains the tagline: “Thanks for exploring with us. The journey doesn’t end here. You’ll start to see future versions of Glass when they’re ready (for now, no peeking).”
VR is already here. Google Cardboard enables you to turn your smartphone into a VR device for less than $5. At first glance, one could easily see it as a fantastic educational tool, allowing a person to take a walk through a rain forest, the Grand Canyon, the Great Wall of China or even on the moon. Google offers an “Expeditions Pioneer Program,” which they tout as, “Bringing immersive and educational virtual reality journeys to schools, teachers and students around the world.”
As great as this sounds, it is worth considering that cardboard places your smartphone screen a little less than 2 inches from your eyes, and that’s where the science of the future blue light conversation starts to get a little bit scary.
A website, f.luxometer.com gives you the ability to look at your digital device in terms of how usage may affect circadian rhythm. Putting in Apple’s iPhone 6 with the Cardboard setting for an 8-year-old gives the light intensity as being 91% as bright as daylight; while, for a 35-year-old it is 89%.
According to the inverse square law, the intensity of light coming off a smartphone held at 2 inches is 64 times as great as when held at 16 inches. This implies that Google Cardboard will increase the amount of energy being transferred to the eye by a factor of 64 compared to that same smartphone being held 16 inches from the eye.
With an 8-year-old having a large pupil with a pristine crystalline lens, will children viewing Cardboard’s educational applications for a few hours per day a few times a week incur long-term retinal damage? Will work applications for Cardboard affect an adult’s retinal health?
The way forward
Whilst we should not create an adversarial relationship with device manufacturers as much of this new technology has the potential to enrich the lives of many and unlock new levels of human potential, the conversation around the impact on humans of exposure to blue light will continue to evolve. Considering that most of us view digital devices for over half of our waking hours, there will continue to be a cause for concern in regard to retinal health, circadian rhythm disruption and digital eye strain. Consequently, the leading edge of scientific research in this arena is focused, not only on vision, but also increasingly on neurological function as well as overall health and well-being.