‘Serious’ after-effects associated with the use of mixed reality headsets

‘Serious’ after-effects associated with the use of mixed reality headsets

Stanford, California – Mixed reality headsets have become very popular. These cutting-edge devices, which overlay digital content onto the real world through transient video technology, could revolutionize our daily lives, but come with a set of challenges that may hinder their widespread adoption for continued use. Researchers from Stanford University revealed troubling effects while studying these headphones, including “dangerous” after-effects.

Mixed reality, also known as spatial computing, is among the most talked about consumer technologies today. It promises an immersive experience that combines the physical environment with digital enhancements, allowing users to interact with both realms simultaneously. This technology relies heavily on transient video, which captures the outside world through cameras mounted on headphones, and displays it on internal screens in real time. This innovation enables wearers to interact with digital applications while navigating their physical surroundings, a concept that has piqued the interest of technology enthusiasts and businesses alike.

A team from Stanford University conducted field tests to investigate the psychological and behavioral effects of prolonged video headphone use. Their findings highlight a combination of experiences that could shape the future of human-computer interaction.

“Given the extent to which transient video headphones have come, it is time to devote serious academic thought to the psychological and behavioral effects of this technology,” says study author Jeremy Bailenson, the Thomas More Stork Professor in the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences and founder of the study. Director of the Virtual Human Interaction Laboratory (VHIL), in a university statement. “We want to understand the implications of living a life in which we depend on transit for hours every day to see the world around us.”

Stanford VHIL researchers are developing a protocol for how to use headphones safely in public spaces
Stanford VHIL researchers are developing a protocol for how to use headphones safely in public spaces. (Image credit: Virtual Human Interaction Lab)

Participants engaged in various activities, from walking around the campus to buying coffee, all under the watchful eyes of the facilities to ensure safety. Despite the initial excitement, researchers soon encountered drawbacks, including visual distortions, feelings of social disconnection, and motion sickness, raising concerns about the practicality of the technology for extended daily use.

Mixed reality headsets can cause a “fun mirror” effect.

The study demonstrated how fleeting video can alter perception, limit peripheral vision and provide a “fun mirror” effect that distorts reality. Users reported difficulties with simple tasks such as giving babies their voices or eating food, as technology limitations led to misjudgments of distance and object size.

“Even though the world you’re looking at is real, it definitely has a video game-like ‘difference’ to it,” notes study co-author James Brown, a master’s student in Stanford’s Symbolic Systems Program.

These visual errors, combined with delays in video streaming, not only challenged users’ interactions with the environment, but also sparked a phenomenon that researchers called “social absence.” This feeling of being disconnected from people in the immediate vicinity, as if they were mere images on a screen, highlights the potential social ramifications of widespread adoption of headphones.

Furthermore, the team highlighted the risk of simulation sickness, similar to motion sickness, which may prevent users from interacting for a prolonged period with technology.

“I was surprised because all 11 of us in this study were experienced users of headphones, but even during relatively short periods of use, we tended to feel uncomfortable,” Bailenson explains.

Given these findings, the Stanford team advises mixed reality users to approach the technology with caution. Bailenson recommends moderation in use, suggesting rest periods and shorter sessions to mitigate the harmful effects and potential risks associated with headphones.

“There is great potential for video headsets across all types of applications,” Bailenson concludes. “But there are also risks that can diminish the user experience, from feelings of social absence to motion sickness, with after-effects that can be dangerous.”

The study is published in the journal Technology, mind and behaviour.

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