7 Surprising Side Effects of Virtual Reality

Virtual reality is a nascent technology that’s slowly moving toward wider awareness and adoption. VR enables a huge variety of new experiences. But as with any new development in the tech world, it also comes with a few pitfalls. In fact, we’ve already discussed some of the potential dangers of virtual reality. (Some of those are more serious than others.) And there’s growing evidence that virtual reality use may come with some surprising side effects.

The virtual reality headsets that are already on the market warn users of a wide variety of possible ill effects, including nausea, dizziness, and even seizures. The side effects are temporary, and VR use isn’t believed to cause any lasting damage. But whether you own a virtual reality system or are simply thinking about purchasing one, it’s probably a good idea to know what you’re getting yourself into. Read on to check out some of the surprising side effects that are associated with virtual reality use.

1. Eyestrain

handsome man wearing a virtual reality headset

Virtual reality can cause serious eyestrain | iStock.com/tixti 

Nicola Davis reports for The Guardian that Marty Banks, a professor of optometry at the University of California, Berkeley, has researched many aspects of virtual reality and vision. According to Banks, one of the biggest problems is that a phenomenon called vergence-accommodation conflict can cause eyestrain. (As Wired’s Sarah Zhang explains, this is an eye-focusing problem that arises because VR headsets create 3D images by showing your left and right eyes images that are slightly offset.) Banks notes the problem is usually temporary, though longer-lasting effects are still worth monitoring for. “Everything I have seen suggests it is all short-term and you readjust after you take that headset off,” Banks explains. “But I think it would be unwise for us to say there is no problem.”

2. Nausea or virtual reality sickness

man using a virtual reality headset

VR may cause nausea and dizziness in some | iStock.com/Dangubic

Jack Nicas and Deepa Seetharaman report for The Wall Street Journal that nausea, dizziness, and imbalance are known side effects of using a virtual reality headset. Researchers believe the technology can cause nausea when, for instance, users move their heads and the virtual images don’t keep up. And the Journal notes virtual experiences that involve a lot of movement can be “unsettling” because the user’s eyes think the body is moving, but the inner ear doesn’t. VR headset manufacturers are working to reduce motion sickness by improving motion tracking and increasing frame rates, while content creators are choosing to have users “teleport” to different places instead of running or flying there. And Sam Machkovech reports for Ars Technica that innovations like a dynamically shifting field of view could prevent some of the VR sickness that occurs when the brain and the body don’t agree about what’s going on.

3. Real-world injuries

Woman wearing virtual reality headset

Virtual reality can be hazardous if you’re not careful | iStock.com/satura86

Real-world injuries may be less a side effect and more a hazard associated with virtual reality, but they’re still a risk worth mentioning. As Scott Stein reports for CNET, virtual reality headsets block both vision and sound and make it difficult to stay aware of the people, objects, and architecture around you. Even with systems that are equipped with cameras to warn you when you’re approaching an obstacle, users have accidentally smashed their motion controllers into their TVs. It’s possible to run into walls, trip over furniture, get tangled up in wires, swing a controller into someone else’s face, or even hit yourself in the face. Stein recommends against using a VR headset in the same room as a pet or a small child, and notes that it’s not a good idea to play VR games in a crowded room unless you’re sitting down. 

4. Psychological consequences

man using virtual reality headset

Virtual reality may leave you with a longing for the virtual world after you’re finished playing | iStock.com/Popartic

Rebecca Searles reports for The Atlantic that “virtual reality can leave you with an existential hangover.” Post-VR sadness can “range from feeling temporarily fuzzy, light-headed, and in a dream-like state, to more severe detachment that lasts days — or weeks.” Searles notes the only study that looks explicitly at virtual reality and clinical dissociation, authored by Frederick Aardema in 2006, “found that VR increases dissociative experiences and lessens people’s sense of presence in actual reality. He also found that the greater the individual’s pre-existing tendency for dissociation and immersion, the greater the dissociative effects of VR.” And according to a 2015 study by Kathrine Jáuregui-Renaud in the journal Multisensory Research, feelings of unreality can also be triggered by the sort of contradicting sensory input. This causes a mismatch between the signals from the vestibular system in the inner ear and the visual system that users experience with VR headsets.

5. Game Transfer Phenomena

Girl using VR headset

Game Transfer Phenomena may become more prevalent | iStock.com/Sasha_Suzi

VentureBeat spoke to psychologist Angelica Ortiz de Gortari of Nottingham Trent University who thinks the mainstream use of VR headsets will bring an increase in the occurrence of Game Transfer Phenomena. GTP, which is largely restricted to the gaming community, includes symptoms like “seeing objects turn into clusters of pixels, hearing sounds from games when you’re falling asleep, or even swerving to avoid Battlefield-style ‘land mines’ on the highway.” Ortiz de Gortari explains the use of virtual reality will likely cause our brains to confuse virtual and physical events. “As virtual environments facilitate richer perceptual, spatial, and emotional experiences it will be easier for us to find ourselves in situations where suddenly we make mishaps confusing virtual events from the ones in the physical world.”

6. Virtual reality addiction

two young men testing virtual reality glasses in office

Some people may become addicted to virtual reality | iStock.com/Jacob Ammentorp Lund

VentureBeat’s Dan Crawley reports another potential worry related to virtual reality is “living with a virtual headset on will be preferable to taking it off, at least for some people.” That could be a tempting option for people who are already dealing with mental health problems. But Crawley notes “anyone could potentially find the temptations of VR hard to resist.” It’s not unheard of for gamers to become so immersed in a game that they continue playing to the detriment of their self-care or the care of others. Andrew Doan, head of addictions and resilience research for the U.S. Navy, tells the publication, “Because virtual reality is more arousing to the brain and neuroendocrine system, we may see more problems with addiction and abuse as devices become accessible to more people.”

7. Unknown effects of long-term use

woman using virtual reality headset

Because VR is so new, it’s hard to tell what the long-term effects are | iStock.com/humonia

Sarah Sharples of the University of Nottingham and the Chartered Institute of Economics and Human Factors, another expert The Guardian spoke to, says more research is needed into the long-term side effects of virtual reality use. She reports, “We haven’t really yet got to the stage where people have been using virtual reality for prolonged periods of time — over, for example, periods of weeks or months — to identify with any clear certainty any long-term effects of virtual reality.” However, she notes researchers should be cautious about equating known “effects” with “problems” in the absence of evidence. “The key point is : There are effects, but are they detrimental?”