Stanford University professor Jeremy Bailenson and 10 other brave researchers each spent hours wearing computer goggles similar to Apple’s Vision Pro.
They ate meals, rode bicycles (with a chaperone), played catch (with a soft fluffy ball) and did jigsaw puzzles.
Most of the volunteers experienced discomfort, such as headaches or nausea. Wearing computers strapped to their faces, they found that other humans seemed fake.
Bailenson said bringing a fork to his mouth took effort and often wound up short of the target.
You know the line don’t try this at home? Really, don’t try this at home. And not in your car, office or coffee shop, either.
Bailenson’s conclusion from the experiment and his decades studying virtual reality: Computer headsets should be used sparingly and reserved for situations in which phones, TVs or real life are ill-suited.
Powering through your email? No. Driving? DEFINITELY NO. But yes to group exercises on the moon.
A face computer like the Vision Pro, Bailenson said, is “amazing. We should use it but hardly at all.”
The research suggests that wearing computer headsets for long stretches could be risky to our brains, physical safety and social connections - and that the ways people have loved using the Vision Pro misjudge what the technology is best for.
Few people are wearing the new generation of headsets, such as the $3,500 Vision Pro or Meta’s $500 Quest 3, for hours at a time. Bailenson said that researchers and technology companies need to pay attention to the benefits and downsides before the devices become widespread.
We didn’t do that with smartphones, and now we’re digging out from their effect on our attention spans, happiness and health.
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Seeing the world but distorted
Conventional virtual reality headsets block out what’s happening around you, like wearing a blindfold.
But the Vision Pro and Quest 3 are among a new generation of goggles that mix internet images into your physical environment.
You can see what’s in front of you but it’s not real. It’s a nearly real-time video feed.
Images are distorted; objects are farther away than they appear. Your field of vision is also narrower. But because you can see your surroundings, you might be overconfident.
My colleague Chris Velazco felt like he could move around a room normally while wearing the Vision Pro, but he repeatedly tripped. Bailenson compared it to walking while cupping your hands around your eyes.
After only a few days of sales for the Vision Pro, some online posts appeared to show people wearing the goggles as they walked through a mall, rode a subway, lifted weights, crossed a street and drove a car. (These could be staged pranks.)
Don’t do any of this. Apple’s documents say you shouldn’t use the Vision Pro while driving or other “situations requiring attention to safety.”
Bailenson believes companies should disable headsets from working when the sensors detect they’re in a moving car. Apple and Meta didn’t reply to requests for comment on his recommendation.
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‘Glassholes’ in reverse
The research paper by Bailenson and his collaborators examined more than a century of research into wearing glasses or goggles that distort what we see. People generally adjust to the sensory distortions. Bailenson’s team found that, too.
The researchers couldn’t catch a ball at first when they wore headsets but they got the hang of it after 10 or 15 attempts. (They mostly wore the Quest 3. Some of them also tried the Vision Pro. Bailenson said the Vision Pro has fewer distortions but they’re still present.)
They did, however, alter how they threw the ball to compensate for the headset’s distortions. Bailenson is concerned about the warping effects of computer headsets during and after our use and the adaptations we’re forced to make.
The research also found social distortions.
A decade ago, the term “Glassholes” referred to the revulsion for people who wore the experimental Google Glass face computer in public. Bailenson’s team found a reverse effect.
When the researchers wore headsets, they perceived other people as TV characters. It dehumanized them.
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Better uses for headsets
In his virtual reality lab, Bailenson generally limits people’s use of headsets to 30 minutes. Then they take a break, drink water, touch a wall and talk to another person.
He also imagines a checklist for transitioning out of goggles and their sensory distortions - perhaps eye exercises or walking toward a target.
Bailenson is worried, however, that we’re not good at limiting time with tempting devices like smartphones.
And he chafes at using headsets like the Vision Pro for hours to do office work or watch movies. But that is how Apple and Meta have imagined you’ll use their goggles.
“In the history of VR no one has ever advocated that we should be wearing these headsets all day long,” Bailenson said.
Instead he said headsets are best for short sessions and situations that would be dangerous, expensive or impossible in real life.
Think training firefighters or students wearing goggles to feel an alligator’s skin. At Stanford, class lectures in VR were a dud, Bailenson said. But people loved a group breathing exercise in imaginative virtual surroundings.
Bailenson says face computers shouldn’t become another screen we stare at all day.
“Wearing a headset is not free,” he said. “It’s tiring. It’s intrusive. It cuts you off from the world.”