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A parent’s guide to Virtual Reality

If your knowledge of virtual reality is limited to Disclosure (the dodgy 90s thriller staring Demi Moore and Michael Douglas) then it’s time to catch up with what’s been happening.

Virtual reality is about to become consumer reality with a new wave of VR headsets hitting the shops in the run up to Christmas.

This guide has been designed to take parents through the most popular VR options - looking at how much the kit costs, what the age restrictions are and why most manufacturers are taking such a cautious approach to younger children using its headsets.

This is not a review and not all the products we list here have been tested by us but where possible we have sought to address the main concerns.

What is virtual reality? 

Virtual Reality – also known as VR – is a form of immersive computer technology, that recreates environments to make you feel like you’re somewhere else.

Experiences vary, depending on the type of headset you’re wearing, but most contain sensors, which monitor a player’s movements in real time. When players move their head, this movement is transposed into the virtual environment. Gamers have the impression of being completely immersed in the experience, whether it’s swimming with sharks, exploring outer space or running for shelter in a post apocalyptic world plagued by a marauding hoard of zombies.

The Oculus Rift headset

What are the main ways to access VR experiences?

This is usually achieved through wearing headsets, which range enormously in terms of price and experience. Lower end, no frills VR can be achieved via headsets such as Samsung Gear VR or Google Daydream View and a smart phone. At the higher end, there are PC-based sets such as Oculus Rift and HTC Vive (which require top flight gaming PCs).

Sony’s newly released PlayStation VR – which runs on a standard PlayStation4 – hopes to steal the middle ground. At entry level, Google Cardboard, which Parent Zone had a lot of fun trying out at a recent schools event at the Natural History Museum, can be bought on Amazon for as little as £6.

Is VR appropriate for my child?

 None of the current range of higher end headsets on the market are recommended for under 12s, while even Google’s relatively low-tech cardboard headset comes with the recommendation that it should only to be used by kids under adult supervision.

Manufacturers are being cautious because virtual reality is relatively new and no one really knows yet what the long-term effects are, especially on children whose bodies and brains are in the process of developing.

Some experts have raised concerns about short sightedness (myopia) which children may be more vulnerable to if they are focusing on something very near to them for long periods of time.

Another concern, which equally affects some adults, is motion sickness (feelings of nausea and headaches). If you are likely to get sick on a roller coaster it’s reasonable to assume that you could feel sick on a virtual one because the image that you are viewing gives the brain visual signals it receives when you are actually moving.

Motion sickness has also been reported in some instances where there have been time lags (if you move suddenly when wearing the headset and there is a delay in updating the image) and people have also reported feeling ill when they play a fast moving VR game for too long.

As well as physical side effects, of more concern for parents may be the psychological effects these games have on children. Would you child be prepared for the experience of being killed in a virtual world?

Sony’s Worldwide Studio boss has already spoken of a need for a games rating system for games that might cause trauma and ratings body PEGI has admitted that it may need to re-evaluate its ratings system when VR is more widespread, taking a closer look at how it assesses fear and horror in terms of suitability for young audiences.

The porn industry is also reported to be investing millions into VR, for obvious reasons, and it's something parents should be aware of. 

Of course, this is such new technology that no-one actually knows yet whether any of these risks are likely, how serious they are or, indeed, how widespread they will be. The chances are, as with most devices, many people will experience a positive, different and immersive experience. But for now, it makes sense to follow the manufacturers' guidance about use and age restrictions until more is known. Further reading:


Main image: Maurizio Pesce, CC BY 2.0