An Optometrist on Virtual Reality: What Are We Risking?

First thing’s first: When I posted this video on Reddit, there was apparently a lot of contention due to the fact that I referred to Mark as a doctor. Here in the U.S., we call optometrists eye doctors just the same way we call ophthalmologists eye doctors, even though anyone informed on the issue knows they do different things.

So before you decide to get a hateful hard-on due to my use of the term “eye doctor”, just know they’re used interchangeably where I come from, and optometrists are held to very similar standards as medical doctors. They’re not just fancy eye men that give you glasses in the United States.

If you’re at all interested in watching that video, here it is! I’ll give a brief summary of the high points below:

Summary: What Does an Optometrist Have to Say About VR Headsets?

There’s a lot more detail in the video above, but here are the highlights:

  • Your eyes have to converge (go cross-eyed) to view objects close up
  • Distant and mid-range objects are much “easier” on your eyes
  • Long periods of eye strain can cause headaches or eye soreness
  • Long-term exposure to blue light may cause damage to your eyes, but the jury is still out on that particular issue
  • There’s no foreseeable long-term damage risk; if you experience any discomfort, headaches, or soreness, just take some time off and let your eyes heal

Anything Else You Want to Know?

I’m hoping to sit down with Mark again in the future and revisit this topic after he’s had an opportunity to do some more research. Is there anything in particular you’d like to know if we revisit this topic in the future? If so, please scroll to the bottom of this post and let me know in the comments. If there’s enough demand and a lot more questions, I’ll make sure to sit down with him again in the future.

Full Transcription of the Video Above:

Ian: Hey guys, Ian the Virtual Reality Ginger here. I’m here with a good friend of mine, Dr. Mark Sturm, and today we’re going to be slapping a headset on him – the Oculus Rift. He’s never been inside of a virtual reality headset. But, how long have you been practicing optometry now, Mark?

Mark: About five years.

Ian: Mark owns his own optometry clinic and he also owns his own optical. So, he’s got a really good sense compared to us, the average folk, of what his eyes are doing; how they’re compensating, what the lenses inside the headset are causing him to do. We all know this headsets are tricking us into seeing distance, into seeing vision, and much further away than– obviously, we don’t feel like we’re looking at a screen that’s right here in front of our face. Mark’s going to talk to us about, kind of, what that magic that’s happening in our eyes is and how it’s compensating, how it’s reacting, how it’s acting. And so, we’re going to get this headset slapped onto him here.

I’m going to step off-camera because there’s just no sense in me crowding Mark for no reason. I’ll step off-camera really quick and you’ll hear me asking questions and prompting him off-camera. But, otherwise, you’ll just see the footage of what’s happening in the game and hear what Mark’s telling us what his eyes are doing. You ready to go?

Mark: Let’s do it.

Ian: All right.

[Virtual Reality Ginger Intro]

Mark: To be honest, even when we were setting up, before we even flipped the screen on here, I can feel my eyes working pretty hard even through some of the setup stuff.

Ian: Yeah. So tell us a little bit– let’s look at that HUD, that heads up display on your helmet, the kind of graphics around the helmet. Not that, but look down and kind of–

Mark: Oh, yeah.

Ian: –right? Tell us what your eyes are doing when you look at those. To the left, like that, bottom left circle, right there. That’s really close to your face.

Mark: Oh, man. I’ll tell you what. Actually, initially, when I looked at it, it’s all double until your brain figures out the cue that the eyes have to actually converge significantly, and then, I can bring that double into single. But, I mean, you’re looking at a lot of these gauges too long, man, you might get a headache. I’ll tell you what.

Ian: What about—

Mark: Anybody that thinks 30-some hours of this is easy, we’ll see how many of those show up on the internet.

Ian: Let’s talk about mid-range stuff now. You see those objects floating there?

Mark: Yeah, mid-range stuff is pretty easy. Naturally, your eyes are going to be parallel so anything out mid-range or distance are very easy, too.

Ian: So, your eyes aren’t really converging to see those?

Mark: No, not really. There’s was a little bit of convergence because the eyes have to differentiate it like, if I look straight ahead, I can tell that that bottle is floating ahead of the rest of the stuff. But, there’s other cues, you see there’s what’s called parallax, there’s other cues that this system uses to tell where things are. You see those two little dots right there, right? If I go up and down, you can see which one’s in front of the other, you can see ‘em getting closer and further away. There’s a lot of cues that the brain uses to tell what’s closer, what’s further away.

Ian: What about distance? I assume that’s even easier on your eyes, right?

Mark: Oh, yeah.

Ian: Looking at the earth down below you right now.

Mark: But, then again, your eyes are still working together a little bit. If I would have to guess, if I were to look down there the whole time, I’d be just fine. But, when I start looking at some of this over here, or start looking at some of this near stuff, that’s when it starts to get a little tasking on the visual system.

Ian: It’s tough. Yeah, I could feel my eyes straining pretty bad when I did that.

Mark: Well, you know over here, and I’ll tell you what, I don’t know if you could see the rest of my body, but I keep getting a little bit off-balance. You see that?

Ian: Yeah. Happened to me too. You died.

Mark: I died. Yeah.

Ian: That’s okay. You’re at the beginning of the game.

Mark: You know what? I didn’t get to that cooler of beer over there. I would’ve been fine.

Ian: Let’s talk a little bit about– and how do you say it again? It’s not Fresnel, that’s how a lot of people say it.

Mark: Fresnel.

Ian: Fresnel? Okay. So, the Fresnel lenses, what are those doing to make what’s happening in your eyes right now? How are those functioning?

Mark: You know, my thought is, what that does is, there’s just a lot of microscopic prisms. Prism is essentially– kind of bends the light a little bit. It’s able to give you just a wider field of view out there. You do have to be centered into these things – if you were to have the headset too low or too high – you’re definitely going to not see clear out towards the edges. That’s one of the things I figured out real quick when we initially set the headset on, as we have to be centered pretty good. That’s because of the Fresnel prisms.

Ian: Okay. Now, am I understanding correctly that those lenses essentially give you a really– you would know the better way to say it– but, they essentially give you a really– they’re compensating for farsightedness, correct?

Mark: No, they’re actually– from what I’m guessing, of course. This is the first time I put it on or played with it or anything– it’s letting you see that very, very wide view that you got here, versus if you look through a pair of binoculars, you get limited peripheral view. The Fresnel prism are giving you that expanded– I don’t know how many degrees this is, I’m sure it’s listed in this specs, but there is this quite a field of view here.

Ian: Yeah, there’s some contention as what the field of view ranges. I think namely from 100 degrees to 110 degrees.

Mark: Oh, yeah?

Ian: Yeah. But it’s more than enough to be immersed.

Mark: Oh, yeah.

Ian: And you may or may not know the answer to this question, that’s fine, but, is there anything that, say, your eyes are converging really badly, do you know if that can basically put you in a motion sickness more quickly? There were times where I felt where my eyes kind of had to go cross-eyed really quickly to keep up with an object, and then had to rebound back really quickly.

Mark: You know, it really depends because the same scenario as looking, like, the hand in front of your face, and then looking at the distance, something far, far away, the distance. Or, let’s say you’re driving a car, look at your phone, look at the road, look at the phone… I mean, your focal system and convergence system have to keep changing, especially the way this is set up. So, if I’m looking at some of this stuff here, I mean, man, my eyes are really going to have to be bring themselves in quite a bit. Depending on what kind of game you’re at, whether or not it’s really tasking your system or not. This is pretty, to be honest, this is not too terrible because if I want to, I can just keep looking out at the distance, I don’t have to do a whole lot. If I want to be pretty active and look at my panels back out to the distance to my panels here, you’re going to get pretty tired pretty quickly.

Ian: Yeah.

Mark: I think it really depends on the type of the game. How long you could really handle it without starting to become fatigued, or you’ve been getting a headache, or anything else that goes on with tasking the eyes like you’re doing.

Ian: I should preface this question as well by saying; I don’t want you to– you’re not committing into anything by answering this. I know that you haven’t done any long term studies, there really haven’t been any long term studies done on this, so you’re not going to be held medically to whatever you answer here. But, based on what you’re experiencing right now, do you see any risk of long-term vision damage, damage to the eyes, or too much eye strain causing damage, due what’s happening at that headset right now?

Mark: I don’t see any long term damage happening. But, like anything, you know, I’ve got those patients that are accountants, that are data entry patients, they are on their computer or they are doing near work all day, and you fatigue the system for how many hours a day without taking breaks. For most of those patients, it’s usually headaches and eye strain, typically.

Ian: Yeah.

Mark: And to be immersed into this, I’m assuming it can sneak up here pretty quick, but I don’t see any long term damage, to be honest with you.

Ian: Excellent.

Mark: Now, there’s other factors, and others might argue, there’s the blue light thing. You know, you’re always going to hear that argument at first.

Ian: Yeah, let’s talk about the blue light thing really quickly because some people are aware of it, but some are not. Let’s talk about what the contention, what the controversy there is, and why people say blue-light can…

Mark: Blue light, the visual spectrum of ROYGBIV, it’s the rainbow, that’s the white light that we can see. That spectrum, the blue light is at the end of that spectrum and that is the higher energy light and that is what’s said to possibly cause more damage like macular degeneration and acceleration of cataracts, things like that. Our electronics emit that blue light, so you’ll see a lot of different coatings and stuff come out. Computer glasses, they get the blue block coatings on there, they’re just blocking a specific spectrum of the visual spectrum. Ian, you had a pair of those glasses that we fit on you, and that’s what you used for those 30-some hours. Is there proof that I saved you from damaging your eye? Maybe that’d be hard to prove, but there is proof that the blue light is more damaging than the rest of the visual spectrum.

Ian: Got you. So, why not err on the side of caution?

Mark: Yeah. You know, you’ve got a choice between regular glasses and a set with a blue-block coating on it, I would have the blue-block coating on it for sure, absolutely.

Ian: Okay. I don’t want you whirring around here in all evening, but I do want to ask you one more thing here. If you get a headache or eye strain from using the headset too much, what should you do? Should you take a break and if so, how long?

Mark: Yeah. I have the same conversation with my patients that have issues. They say, “I’m in front of the computer for 12 hours a day, and I have headaches, I have issues.” I give them a couple of options; I can give you pair of glasses that can help focus a little bit for you, and then do all the focusing for you, but it may do 20% of it for you and so your eyes don’t get as tired; or, you can start taking breaks every half hour take 5 minutes, go grab a drink, go take a walk around the office or something. Just take a break. Let the eyes reset for a little bit then go back to work. Same thing with doing this. I think if I was immersed doing this for a couple of hours straight, knowing me, I’d probably have a pretty good headache, to be honest with you.

Ian: Yeah, okay.

Mark: For me, I’d like to pause it, go grab a drink, hang out for just a second, and then maybe come back to it and I’m going to feel a little bit more refreshed.

Ian: Say, someone kind of pushes through their eye strain for too long, can the muscles in their eye, just like if you worked out too hard the day before, can they feel sore the next day?

Mark: They can.

Ian: Is that anything to worry about?

Mark: No, you’re not going to permanently damage them. But, like I said, I’ve got patients that work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week straight, and that’s all it, there’s just nothing I can do to make myself feel better, I usually throw them a pair of glasses, but if they don’t do one of those things, they’re always going to feel fatigued. They feel like they had been hit by a tuck by the end of the day, they’re tired. Their focusing system kind of breaks down where it starts to focus in and out and it doesn’t really work correctly. Sometimes, like, I can focus on this little bag here in front of me, right? Those patients, they’ll notice that they’re not able to focus correctly at the end of the day doing that. Although no permanent damage at the time, you’re definitely going to have some symptoms but…

Ian: Gotcha.

Mark: I’d like to tell the kids that their eyes are going to go crossed and they won’t be fixed, but I’m sure parents would love me to tell them that. And I actually have parents try to bribe me to do that, but that’s not the case.

Ian: You have any thoughts, anything else you’re experiencing, you want to share? I think we’ve been pretty thorough here, but anything else you want to cover?

Mark: I don’t think so. Other than like I said, I can feel my eyes, they’re getting beat up here a little, but I can tell they’ve been working for a while.

Ian: So, your advice to people that are feeling eye strain is take a quick break, grab a drink, and come back to it?

Mark: Yep, absolutely.

Ian: Alright, man. Well, thanks so much. I’ll go ahead and sign off here and do something interesting in the video, whenever I edit it, of course. But, thank you so much for your time, man, thank you for hopping in. I hope you enjoyed it and thanks for your insight.

Mark: Wow! …[whistles, pauses]… My legs!

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