Within a few years, if not sooner, we’ll have fully entered the age of consumer virtual-reality products. Prices will go down, the quality of the hardware will go up, and it will become increasingly common to play games, get tours of apartments, and do all kinds of other stuff in virtual-reality environments. But, as The Wall Street Journal points out, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the potential health and psychological effects of VR.
The piece is an interesting read as a brief tour of what sorts of questions companies and researchers (and consumers) are grappling with, but it doesn’t get very deep into the specifics of VR’s actual potential health and psychological issues here (though it does mention the obvious potential problem of nausea). For example, it’ll be interesting to see whether the intense stimuli of VR environments exacerbate panic symptoms in people who have them (it’s hard to imagine that there won’t be at least a few people who end up at the ER as a result of a VR-induced panic attack that makes them think they’re dying), or whether people with other mental-health issues find VR video games more addictive than regular ones. On the other side of the ledger, will therapists be able to come up with effective interventions that can use VR for, say, exposure therapy to help treat phobias? Or help simulate contact between different types of people so as to reduce prejudice?
As researchers try to puzzle out these problems, it’s important to keep in mind that there is bound to be some sort of moral panic about VR once it gets sufficiently mainstream. Yes, for the most part, people have accepted the fact that the story of how video games affect behavior is much more complicated than certain demagogues would have us believe, but there will always be people who don’t understand technology and seek to profit off of fearmongering about it. In the case of VR — which really is intense, and which really is a step up from everything that’s come before it in terms of immersion — there will likely be some embarrassing cable-news segments about whether VR headsets are turning our kids into zombies.