Is Virtual Reality Child’s Play?

Written by Marc RobergeFlorence Roche, and Judith Beauregard

Virtual reality and 360 video open up new horizons for children’s content, especially when it comes to teaching. But what can be said about the potential risks of this new technology as far as young viewers are concerned?

Virtual reality (VR) is increasingly accessible to children. McDonald is testing its Happy Goggleswhere the Happy Meal box converts into VR goggles like the Google Cardboard. Mattel is selling View-Master VR, a modern version of the famous toy used to view images in stereoscopy (3D). However, this time around, everything is in VR.

Given the growing popularity of many VR headsets now available on the market, experts are raising questions on the risks and benefits of this technology when it comes to children. Although most of these experts are urging caution, others see opportunities to seize that go way beyond using this technology only for gaming.

So, put on your goggles and we’ll try to gain a clearer picture of this universe that has already seduced countless adults and is now attracting an increasing number of children.

Manufacturers skeptical given the uncertainty

Most major manufacturers advise against the use of their VR products by children aged below 13. Two reviews of the recommendations made by manufacturers (Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Samsung VR, Playstation VR, Google Cardboard, etc.) were recently published by TechAgeKidsand Wareable.

According to most observers, given the relative absence of studies conducted to date on how this technology can impact young children, manufacturers prefer to advise against its use or recommend its use for very short periods (at most, a few minutes at a time) and under the supervision of an adult (a parent or teacher) even though the risks of dizziness and loss of balance associated with the use of VR goggles are generally less pronounced among children than adults.

The reasons provided by manufacturers remain rather fuzzy and the age limit for lifting the ban (12 or 13 years of age) appears to be just as arbitrary. What can be said about the real potential risks?

Poorly suited to children’s heads

With the exception of Google Cardboard type devices designed to force users to use both hands to press the goggles against their face, most VR headsets were designed for adults.

Despite the straps that enable users to properly set the device on their head, the weight of the headset (to which is added the weight of a smartphone in certain cases) is too heavy for young children’s neck muscles, particularly when the device is worn for prolonged periods of time.

Another obvious physical limitation is the absence of consideration given to the shorter distance that separates the eyes of young children. Consequently, children are not able to optimize their VR experience.

The impact of VR on developing brains

Beyond the unsuitable physical dimensions, scientists worry about possible negative impacts on the development of children’s eyesight. Ophthalmologists believe the prolonged use of VR headsets by children could pose a risk to the development of their eyesight. This is because, contrary to the real world, there is only one focal distance that exists in VR.

Some researchers are also preoccupied by another cerebral phenomenon. According to preliminary research, more than half of the neurons associated with spatial recognition do not react to VR. Scientists therefore fear that a long-term exposure of children’s brains to VR will result in a potentially inadequate neuronal development.

In addition to this, certain researchers noticed that young children exposed to VR may create false memories. Therefore, many specialists recommend a certain level of caution until more extensive studies have been conducted with groups of children.

An instant hit among children

Nevertheless, almost all tests carried out with children arrive at the same conclusion: children love VR! Market analysis firm Dubit conducted a study with the Oculus Rift and a dozen children aged 7 to 12. Not only did the children love their experience, but they also all expressed the wish to be able to use this technology at school in the very near future.

Being able to quickly transport oneself to a historic site or having the possibility to live various experiences without having to leave the classroom is more attractive to students than the idea of using this technology solely for video gaming purposes.

Transforming how we learn through virtual reality

Jesse Schell, a world renowned university professor and game and digital experience designer, claims that VR represents nothing less than a revolution for the future of education. During a recent conference, Mr. Schell stated that it is precisely among children that VR will have the greatest benefits.

Although he admits that it will take between 10 and 15 years before the world of education incorporates this new technology into the mainstream, he explains that children of primary school age will never again see how geography is taught in the same manner once they have experienced it through Google Expeditions, for example.

Although this experience does not strictly speaking constitute VR, it does incorporate 360 videos. These videos instantly plunges children in the place they are discovering in the classroom.

Virtual reality: from passiveness to activeness

As proof that VR will propel teaching to a whole new dimension, Jesse Schell presents the SuperChem VR virtual chemistry lab—a laboratory of the future in which children actively handle products and matter. The setting involves no physical maintenance costs and is completely safe.

Shell adds that VR can also be easily combined with real-life interactions to cater to children’s desire for creativity while meeting the educational objectives of school programs.

Betting on hybrid projects that combine playfulness and learning

For several digital product designers who cater to youth markets, the future use of VR by children will necessarily depend on the development of projects that focus both on playful exploration and learning programs.

These designers see enormous potential that should be acted on immediately. Not only do children form the group that is most receptive to this new technology, but they are also those who stand to benefit most from using it.

While major studios are launching the first multiplayer VR experiences like Fairy Forest, independent developers whose creations are aimed at young audiences would most probably reap the greatest benefits by specializing in hybrid projects. This way, they can attract both young publics who are seduced by VR headsets and an increasing number of teachers and instructors who are aware of this technology’s educational potential.

Working together to develop recommendations

There is no doubt that designers who develop digital products for children legitimize researchers’ preoccupations and consequently approach the development of VR with both caution and enthusiasm. Proof of that can be found in a major initiative that has just been launched in Great Britain by XRGames, a brand new studio that specializes in children research and entertainment.

The studio’s president, Bobby Thandi, is currently working in collaboration with infant health professionals to develop recommendations which, he hopes, will lead to the establishment of industry standards. He insists that “virtual reality will offer the industry’s different actors a wealth of possibilities. Our responsibility is to make sure that we quickly understand how to make the best use of these possibilities for young children.”

Judith Beauregard
Executive Producer and Co-CEO of the Montreal-based Tobo Studio, Judith Beauregard has been active in the interactive domain since 1993. She specialized in youth content for over 15 years and is particularly interested in the intersection of fun and learning. She also teaches at l’INIS (National Institute of Sound & Image) and sits on the board of the Youth Media Alliance.
Read Bio