Emerging Technologies

Ignore the hype that we’ll all live in the metaverse. Let’s use virtual reality, but hardly at all

Using virtual reality technology is hard, even with the latest lightweight devices, and can take its toll on users.

Using virtual reality technology is hard, even with the latest lightweight devices, and can take its toll on users. Image: Unsplash/Bermix Studio

Jeremy Bailenson
Founding Director, Virtual Human Interaction Lab, Stanford University
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Emerging Technologies

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  • Tech giants are betting users will use virtual reality headsets for just about everything, but VR shouldn't be used that regularly.
  • Using virtual reality technology is hard, even with the latest lightweight devices, and can take its toll on users.
  • We should instead focus on using VR in settings where it can be invaluable, such as in medical and emergency service training situations.

Companies like Meta are betting users will use virtual reality (VR) headsets for just about everything. Meanwhile, journalists highlight CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s inability to draw daily users to his so-called metaverse.

Both are missing the crucial point. VR shouldn’t be used all day long, or even every day. Its strength has always been in its ability to provide us with special experiences, not with unending engagement.

I’ve been working with the medium of virtual reality for more than two decades, and we have a simple saying in the lab, one we use after particularly frustrating days of wrangling hardware and software: VR is hard.

How virtual reality can take its toll

Think about what it takes to literally swap the real world with a fake one, replace light to the retina and sound waves to the ears. This feat needs to occur about a hundred times per second and be completely reactive to body movements.

Just like the real world, objects in virtual reality need to get bigger and louder when you lean closer, and micromovements of the tiniest magnitude change perception.

When I first started working with virtual reality in the late 1990s, a system cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and required a dedicated room with a full-time engineer to operate. Headsets were clunky, heavy, and slow, and we had to keep a bucket in the lab for extreme cases of simulator sickness.

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These days, there are millions of standalone devices sold each year, which bundle the tracking cameras, render computer and optics display all within the headset itself, cost a few hundred dollars, and weigh less than a kilogramme.

But even with the more comfortable hardware compared to the early days, using virtual reality takes its toll. Over time, the perceptual system gets fatigued due to how different VR displays are from the real world. We have a 30-minute rule in my lab. After a half hour, take off the headset, drink some water and take a break.

Even in short durations, some people simply cannot handle VR at all, for example those who get nauseous in the passenger seat of cars. And then there’s the challenge of being completely absent from the real world – not being able to hear or see around you for hours at a time is hardly a recipe for wellbeing.

Ignore the hype, which says we’ll all live in the metaverse. Actually, let’s use VR hardly at all.

Benefits of virtual reality experiences

VR is an incredible, special and intense medium. In my lab, a framework has evolved over the past few decades, and we call it by the acronym DICE. Through hundreds of studies we have learned it is best to save VR for experiences that in the real world would be “dangerous”, “impossible”, “counterproductive” or “expensive”.

Training firefighters, rehabilitating stroke victims, learning art history via sculpture museums, time travelling to understand climate change are all examples that fit squarely in DICE. Checking your email, watching movies and general office work do not. Let’s use the medium when it earns its keep.

During the pandemic, I was able to put DICE to the test at Stanford. The university bought 200 Oculus Quest 2s for my Virtual People class, which I’ve taught since 2003. In four separate courses over a two-year period, more than 500 students learned about VR in VR, across various platforms.

We logged hundreds of thousands of minutes in-headset together. It was an incredible endeavour, and exciting to finally get to use VR at scale. We spent more than a year planning the course, and quickly realized our biggest challenge wasn’t hardware or software.

It was figuring out what to actually do during all those hours in-headset. No research or coursework in the history of VR had ever put hundreds of people in VR together for months at a time. We learned along the way, and the fourth iteration of the course looked very different than the first.

What worked – filling those many hours – was DICE. We floated on yoga mats into space and looked down at the Earth while learning paced breathing from a meditation expert. We descended into an empty world and built entire cities, one block at time.

We experienced life in other bodies, practicing empathy while wearing avatars of different skin colours or genders. We experienced a corner kick from the goalie’s perspective in a German national football team training session to learn body position and posture. We time-travelled by visiting past recordings of our own avatars and walking around like ghosts inside a rendering of our recent social past.

What didn’t work was so-called “knowledge work”. Meetings where the only activity is talking, working on shared documents, and watching videos have very little value in VR. Laptops work just fine for this type of work, while VR headsets just get in the way.

Where virtual reality can go a long way

I often get asked if virtual reality is ready for primetime. It is. Every day, thousands of people are using VR for DICE in training, medical treatment and wellbeing.

One of the best use cases I have ever seen in VR is Penumbra’s REAL System, a full-body tracking system used by thousands of patients in hospitals and clinics across the country for rehabilitation for stroke, orthopaedic injuries and other conditions.

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VR transforms the rehab experience – virtual simulations can dictate the exact speed and location of movements to choreograph incredibly detailed trajectories. Moreover, critical patient movement gets recorded, both to use in real-time for adaptive training as well as for healing assessment.

And, of course, the immersive nature of the sessions maximizes engagement and pain distraction. Those patients are reaping huge benefits from just a few short sessions each week. In this regard, a little virtual reality can go a long way.

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