On Monday I ran an endurance gauntlet of VR demos: 10 games, 30 minutes each, one after the other.
It was a showcase of all the Oculus Rift’s launch games, many of which I really liked. But it also brought up a question I’ve had for a while about VR: can you endure being immersed in it for more than a half-hour or so? How does it make you feel after prolonged use?
As the picture above indicates, it didn’t exactly make me feel brilliant. After a morning’s worth of different Rift games, I felt disorientated, a touch nauseous, and distinctly headachey. After five hours I felt like I needed a lie-down in a dark room. It’s not that the games are badly made, or that the headset is uncomfortable to use: developers appear to have figured out the ground rules of VR now and no finished Oculus game makes you feel actively unwell, like some of the earlier demos could. But jumping between different realities turns out to be quite taxing on the brain. I also had very attractive red marks all around my face from wearing the headset all day.
In the space of five hours, I was: an astronaut free-floating in space, a disembodied camera watching a little fox jump around, sitting in a chair playing a card game, a bird flying at speed around a deserted city, benevolent general to a group of space-bears, a tennis player, a gunslinger ducking in and out of cover, and an AI virus that infected robots with laser rifles. Each time the headset came off, I had only about five minutes to readjust to reality before being dropped into a new world. It was… challenging.
The beginning of Adrift – a game that, thankfully, can be played outside of VR – has you essentially living through the opening scene of the film Gravity, which is stressful enough to watch, let alone experience. As I free-floated in space away from an exploding station, separated from the endless, spinning abyss of space only by a tether caught around my leg, my brain was telling me that I was in real, imminent danger, sending adrenaline coursing through my system, making me feel panicked as well as distinctly nauseated. It was intense, but definitely not comfortable.
There was a noticeable disconnect between my conscious self and my brain’s and body’s natural responses to what was happening. I happened to be wearing a Fitbit during the day, and looking at my heart rate data later on, I discovered that I was constantly in a state of physical stress: my heart rate was over 100 the entire time.
This is, of course, because I am not used to VR. I’ve worn these headsets before, but only ever for 20 or 40 minutes at a time. I’m also especially vulnerable to motion sickness; I get nauseous in the back seat of cars, so VR has always been a bit daunting. Previously, I’ve found that playing VR games for under an hour at a time produced no ill-effects, at least not on the modern, optimised HTC Vive and Oculus headsets.
The only thing I can compare it to is how I used to feel after using the 3DS, in the early days. A half-hour of playing in 3D used to give me a raging headache, but after a couple of months it was completely fine. I’m certain that the same acclimatisation effect will kick in after using VR on a daily or weekly basis. It also might help, I’m thinking, if I ditch the glasses and wear contact lenses when using VR – looking through two lenses is surely not good for the eyes.
The headache lasted until the end of the day. I found looking at any screens at all in the evening made me wince – though the same would be true if I’d spent 6 hours of the day staring at a TV, too. The nausea was a bit more enduring; that persisted until the next morning, when a brisk walk in the San Francisco sunshine seemed to re-orientate me in our shared reality. It did make me nervous about trying too many PlayStation VR demos the next day – after a couple of those, my head was getting swimmy again, so I retreated before it got any worse.
In short: I would definitely not recommend using VR for six continuous hours until you are well acclimatised. I think the sense of disorientation that occurs when you remove the headset will fade with time – as, presumably, will the physical ill-effects – but if you’re the delighted recipient of a new Oculus Rift headset on March 23rd, it’s probably a good idea to pace yourself. Any maybe don’t try 10 different games in one day.