SENSORY DEVELOPMENT & THE IMMERSIVE USER EXPERIENCE
In Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality Is, How It Works & What It Can Do (2018) by Jeremy Bailenson, the author describes how the technological aspects of VR manipulate the senses to create an immersive experience that is nearly identical to real life:
When VR is done right, all the cumbersome equipment—the goggles, the controller, the cables—vanishes. The user becomes engulfed in a virtual environment that simultaneously engages multiple senses, in ways similar to how we are accustomed to experience things in our daily “real” lives… This is distinctly different from other media experiences, which only capture fragmented aspects of what our senses can detect. For instance, the sounds you hear in good VR don’t come from a speaker rooted in one place. Instead, they are spatialized, and they get louder or softer depending on the direction you are facing (or if you are in a tracked environment, how close you move to the source of the sounds). When you look at something in VR, it is not framed by the dimensions of a monitor, or television set, or movie screen. Instead, you see the virtual world as you see the real one. When you look to the left or right, the virtual world is still there… (Bailenson, 49).
Virtual reality allows for a multisensory digital experience that requires the use of motor skills and cognition to navigate the virtual world in a parallel fashion to the real world. According to “The Science of Early Childhood Development” (2009) by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, children can develop an understanding of their senses beginning in the newborn stages and infancy. When a newborn becomes an infant, they can create distinctions between taste, smell, and touch. By the age of three or four, they can correctly identify different sensations and connect it to their senses.
As technological integration among infants and toddlers becomes a normalized part of child development, in tandem with their evolving comprehension of the senses up to four-years-old, how do the blurred lines between reality and fantasy in virtual reality create a conflicted understanding of identity? Does it stunt their identity formation? Or, has the evolving nature of the adult-child allowed children to craft a holistic understanding of identity at a younger age?
According to “The Effects of Immersive Virtual Reality on Young Children's Learning and Spatial Skills” (2017), kindergarten students who utilized VR-based learning devices scored higher on math assessments compared to children who did not (Chen, et al 2017). However, there may be negative consequences to the use of virtual reality for children, especially those who fall in the autism spectrum.
In “The Impact of Technology on People with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Systematic Literature Review” (2019), Daniela Quinones and Erick Jamet explain that VR can decrease the likelihood of real-life social interactions in children. “...We observe that new research has focused on supporting children with ASD by using technologies such as virtual reality, augmented reality, virtual agents, sensors, and geolocation through educational games. These studies emphasize teaching different skills to people with ASD in educational contexts, with a higher percentage of studies focusing on Social Skills (36.17%) than on Conceptual (25.53%) or Practical Skills (8.51%), which shows a need for more research and development of new solutions for teaching such important topics,” (Quinones, Jamet, et al., 2019). If social skills are given priority over conceptual and practical learning, how are children able to understand the practicality and context to which certain social skills should be applied? In terms of understanding the self, how does the repository of social skills enhance or complicate their understanding of contextual use? How do they understand or differentiate the application of these skills in a virtual setting versus real life?
Exposure to virtual reality can also breed a variety of physical repercussions, however, there is not substantial information that points to physical side effects of prolonged VR use in children. According to “Effects of Immersive Virtual Reality Headset Viewing on Young Children: Visuomotor Function, Postural Stability, and Motion Sickness” (2019), Tyschen and Foeller state that common side effects of VR include motion sickness and eye strain. Extensive use can lead to technological addiction and dependence. However, as previously mentioned, serious side effects had not been detected in children:
Young children tolerate fully immersive 3D virtual reality game play without noteworthy effects on visuomotor functions. VR play did not induce significant post-VR postural instability or maladaption of the vestibulo-ocular reflex. The prevalence of discomfort and aftereffects may be less than that reported for adults, (Tyschen, Foeller, 2020).
Tyschen and Foeller conducted a study where children used a VR headset for two trial block play sessions of 30 minutes each of a flight simulation game that requires head motion to control the flight movement and roll axes. They measured refractive error, eye alignment, and visual acuity after they played. Out of all 30 children, no child who completed both sessions asked to end the VR gaming session early. However, 6% of participants (three children) discontinued the trial during the first 10 minutes of the first session due to mild motion sickness. One child stated that he was bored and the headset felt uncomfortable.
Overall, the prolonged effects of VR use in children has not received enough empirical research, both in the physical manifestation of symptoms and subsequent psychological repercussions. As more research is conducted in this growing area, it is important to note how virtual reality can enhance or worsen current trends in screen use among children, and how the developmental stages of child development can be influenced by the addition of newer forms of emerging technology. It is also important for children to receive adequate education about virtual reality and develop a complex understanding of reality versus fantasy when engaging in VR play.