People wearing virtual reality headsets have worse balance and increased mental exertion

New research published in PLOS One has found that virtual reality use impairs physical and cognitive performance while trying to balance.

“I became interested in this topic because virtual reality headsets have recently become widely available, with great potential to make rehabilitation more enjoyable and varied for patients,” said study author Steven M. Peterson of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

“While many studies have explored upper-limb activities, I wanted to understand how immersive and mentally challenging a virtual reality headset is when the user is walking around and not seated. We decided to test the realism of virtual reality by looking for stress at high heights because just the perception of heights can affect how people walk and how cautious they are.”

In the study, the researchers monitored measure physiological and cognitive activity of 19 volunteers as they walked across a 3.8 cm-wide wooden balance beam, which was 2.5 cm off the ground. The volunteers walked across in beam in three different conditions: without a VR headset, with a VR headset that reflected the actual height of the beam, and with a VR headset that made it appear the beam was 15 meters off the ground.

The researchers found that the volunteers’ heart rate and response time significantly increased while wearing the virtual reality headset, even when it depicted the actual height of the beam. Their balance also became significantly worse with the headset on.

The researchers also observed changes in brain activity in the anterior parietal and anterior cingulate, which suggested the volunteers were experiencing greater cognitive load when they wore the headset.

“Virtual reality headsets can be quite immersive, but they worsen balance and increase mental exertion. My study highlights the importance of recording objective data from virtual reality users, in addition to surveys. Understanding how humans physically and mentally handle virtual reality use may help target the uses and limitations of current virtual reality setups, leading to future improvements,” Peterson told PsyPost.

“It would be interesting to compare the performance of multiple virtual reality and augmented reality headsets because they have become so varied recently. My research only uses an Oculus Rift headset. Other headsets may have a wider field of view or quicker refresh rate than the headset I used, which may affect the user differently. More studies like mine may also be helpful for clinicians to understand which headset may perform best for a certain rehabilitation paradigm.”

The study also found that viewing high heights in virtual reality induces stress, similar to high heights in real life.

“My study used high-density, source-localized electroencephalography (EEG) to probe the increased mental exertion due to virtual reality. This can be quite useful as a researcher because it provides insight into specific brain regions, leading to much more information than a difference in response times,” Peterson added. “In addition, my study showed that EEG and virtual reality headsets can be combined successfully, which may be useful for better understanding virtual reality rehabilitation and exergaming.”

The study, “Effects of virtual reality high heights exposure during beam-walking on physiological stress and cognitive loading“, was authored by Steven M. Peterson, Emily Furuichi, and Daniel P. Ferris.