The very real health dangers of virtual reality

(CNN)Is the magical world of virtual reality arriving in your home this holiday season?

You’re not alone. Statistics show that more than a million VR headsets were shipped during the third quarter of 2017. That number is expected to rise rapidly in 2018 as more manufacturers enter the market.
But before you or your children try out your shiny new VR gadgets, be sure you’re fully aware of the potential health risks of this technology.

Clear the playing field

A quick glance at the safety warnings for the major manufacturers in this space makes it clear: Playing VR without supervision and in a crowded space is risky business.
“While wearing the product’s headset you are blind to the world around you,” says the safety information page for HTC’s Vive. “Do not rely on the product’s chaperone system for protection.”
“I see more falling than anything else,” said Marientina Gotsis, an associate professor of research at the Interactive Media and Games Division of the University of Southern California. “You can trip and hit your head or break a limb and get seriously hurt, so someone needs to watch over you when you are using VR. That’s mandatory.”
That includes keeping pets, small children and other obstacles — like ceiling fans — out of the area. Facebook’s Oculus Rift includes an infographic with the product and has an online safety center with video explanations to illustrate the safety issues.

Keep an eye on it

One of the major health concerns about virtual reality involves the eye.
“There are a variety of potential issues,” said University of California, Berkeley optometry Professor Martin Banks, who studies visual perception in virtual environments. “One is how we affect the growth of the eye, which can lead to myopia or nearsightedness.”
Myopia is a growing problem around the world. In the United States, studies show, nearsightedness rose from only 25% of the population in the 1970s to over 40% by 2000. About10 million American adults are considered “severely nearsighted.”
“Looking at tablets, phones and the like, there’s pretty good evidence that doing near work can cause lengthening of the eye and increase risk for myopia,” Banks said. “We’re all worried that virtual reality might make things worse.”

Add ‘motion sickness’

A good many people who use virtual reality complain of eye strain, headaches and, in some cases, nausea. Experts say that’s due to the way VR affects the eye-brain connection.
In real life, our eyes naturally converge and focus on a point in space, and our brain is so used to this that it’s coupled the two responses together. Virtual reality separates those, confusing the brain.
Virtual reality can confuse the eye-brain connection.

“In a virtual environment, the way we look and interact is changed because we may be projecting onto the eyes something that looks far away, but in reality, it’s only a few centimeters from the eye,” said Walter Greenleaf, a behavioral neuroscientist who has studied VR in medical settings for over 30 years.
Science calls that the “vergence-accommodation conflict” and isn’t quite sure how serious it might be. “We’re tricking the brain,” said Greenleaf, who works with Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, “and we don’t know the long-term effect of this.”
Most of us look at cell phones and tablets for a short time before looking up, which minimizes their negative effect on the eye. But with VR, it’s all too easy to become immersed in that out-of-body experience.
How long is too long to use virtual reality in one sitting? Manufacturers like Oculus suggest a “10 to 15 minute break every 30 minutes, even if you don’t think you need it.” But Gotsis says that’s not based on much science.
Little research has been done on the effects of VR on children.

“Most of what is on the market right now has little research behind it,” she says. “Cumulative exposure without us really knowing what is going on is an issue.”
Gotsis says the quality of the virtual reality game also plays a role in how we react.
“A lot of content is not well-made, with a lot of flickering things and objects that come at you too fast or too close, and that can produce eye strain,” she said She insists that any eyestrain be considered a signal to cease playing.
“Damage from eye strain can sometimes be very sudden, so if something is uncomfortable, just stop, take it off and stop looking at it,” Gotsis warned. “Don’t feel trapped and mesmerized in the content. Just stop.”

Pre-existing conditions

It’s not just the eyes that might be harmed. “Listening to sound at high volumes can cause irreparable damage to your hearing,” states Oculus Rift.
“Over time, increasingly loud audio may start to sound normal but can actually be damaging your hearing,” Sony’s PlayStation adds, suggesting that a user lower the volume if they can’t hear people speaking around them while they’re playing.
Most devices also include a warning to see a doctor before use if you are “pregnant, elderly, or have pre-existing conditions that may affect your virtual reality experience such as vision abnormalities, psychiatric disorders, heart conditions, or other serious medical conditions.”
That warning includes implanted medical devices, such as cardiac pacemakers, hearing aids and defibrillators, as well as anyone with epilepsy or a history of seizures and blackouts. But manufacturers say some people can seize even without a history of blackouts, especially those younger than 20, so manufacturers suggest keeping an eye out for involuntary muscle twitches and loss of balance as a signal of a potential problem.
Daydream also suggests avoiding play entirely if you’re “intoxicated, overly tired, or are suffering from a cold, headache, upset stomach, or other sickness” because the experience of virtual reality might make you feel worse.
And if that’s not enough, Daydream View warns that sharing the device could spread contagious diseases and infections and even cause skin irritation.

Children at most risk

Gotsis believes that families with younger children should be especially cautious with virtual reality, even if they purchased the game for teens or young adults.
“It’s almost impossible to hold up something shiny in front of a young child and then say ‘no, you can’t have this,’ ” she said. “So parents have to tell the older child that part of your responsibility is to take care of their younger siblings, to help them understand they shouldn’t use it.”
If they do try it, Gotsis adds, the younger the child, the shorter the exposure should be.
“Children may not know how to communicate discomfort of any sort, such as visual discomfort or motion sickness, so you don’t want prolonged exposure on screen,” she said.
Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, uses VR himself and on subjects in his lab daily. Yet he has let his 6-year-old daughter use it only four times in her life, each time for a duration of only five minutes.
“We read a lot of new studies in our work,” he said, “but what we are seeing is a ton of studies on medical applications and not many with young kids, and not really any with really young kids.”
Berkeley’s Banks agrees. “The research has been done primarily in young adults … so we don’t really know what is going to happen to a young child.”
Most major manufacturers have set a cutoff age: no use of the device for children under the age of 13. Playstation VR set the age limit at 12; HTC’s Vivedoesn’t mention an age, only that it is not “designed to be used by children.”
Google Cardboard has no age restriction but says it should not be used without adult supervision.
Stanford’s Greenleaf believes that until research catches up, parents, “and in fact everyone, should be very judicious” about use.
“I would be concerned for everyone who uses this,” he said. “You don’t have to have a young brain to have an impact.”

Content is key

Virtual reality content can also affect your perception of reality.
“VR can be stored in the brain’s memory center in ways that are strikingly similar to real-world physical experiences,” said Stanford’s Bailenson, author of the forthcoming book “Experience on Demand,” about his two decades of research on the psychological effects of virtual reality. “When VR is done well, the brain believes it is real.”
That’s great if the content is fun, educational or inspirational. For example, research shows that adults can be taught to recycle, increase their physical activity or become more empathetic to those of different races if they see themselves doing so virtually.
What happens if the VR content is scary or violent?

But what if the content is scary or combative? Some of today’s popular VR games allow you to fight off bloody zombies, get a “virtual tour of hell,” battle “endless waves of combatants” and kill as many as you can in “survival horror.” In one game, you can even shoot yourself in the head.
The health and safety page for Google’s Daydream View says it straight out:
“If the content is frightening, violent, or anxiety provoking, it can cause your body to react physically, including increasing your heart rate and blood pressure. It can also, in some individuals, cause psychological reactions, including anxiety, fear, or even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
Studies show that adolescents can react badly to being socially excluded in virtual environments.

“If you were to do this in the real world, how would it affect you? That’s the way to think about virtual reality,” Bailenson said, adding that research shows becoming someone else in VR produces greater changes in real-life attitudes and behavior than watching video or doing role playing.
“So don’t think of VR as a ‘media experience,’ because the brain sees it as similar to an actual experience,” he said. “If it’s an activity that you’re ethically not comfortable with in real life, don’t do it. If you think of it that way, the guidelines on what you want to do in VR become very clear.”

Content and kids

It should come as no surprise that studies show children may be even more susceptible to confusing virtual reality with the real thing, with the youngest at most risk. In a 2009 study, young elementary children watched their virtual doppelgänger swimming with orcas. When these kids were questioned a week later, they said they believed their virtual experience to be real.
In a recent study by Jakki Bailey of the University of Texas, funded by the nonprofit Sesame Workshop, 55 children between the ages of 4 and 6 played the game Simon Says with the furry blue monster Grover, a popular character. Half of the children played in virtual reality; the other half played with Grover’s character on a TV. The games lasted five minutes.
The good news, says Bailenson, is that none of the children in the VR experience became dizzy or had unpleasant physical reactions to their short exposure.
“But the children who saw Grover in VR saw him as more real,” he said. “Grover was more influential in immersive VR than on TV, and it was harder for the children to inhibit their actions and not do what Grover did.”
It’s not just little ones that might internalize a VR scenario. Older adolescents were also found to be painfully sensitive to being socially excluded in a virtual environment.
This means parents need to be careful about the type of VR content they allow their children to view, experts say.
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“A spider can be a fun spider or a scary spider. I don’t know what it’s like until I actually try it,” Gotsis said. “So I find that nothing will replace the parent doing the experience themselves and saying ‘OK, this is fine for my child.’ And then do it with them. Walk them through it. There’s a huge difference between experiencing something alone or with others.”
And as long as parents do their job, Bailenson believes, future research will show that virtual reality can be enjoyed by children without harm.
“I’m not worried about kids using VR. I’m worried about kids using any media uncontrolled,” he said. “Parents need to be careful, active and participating, because the VR medium is more powerful than traditional media. But with proper adult supervision, using it infrequently, I think it’s going to turn out to be just fine.”

Global education rankings to measure tolerance

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International education rankings are going to test a very different type of skill next year.

The Pisa tests, which compare teenagers’ ability in reading, maths and science, for the first time are also going to test “global competence”.

It’s a significant departure to move from maths puzzles and literacy tests to asking questions about fake news, global warming and racism.

The inaugural tests for global competence will take place in about 80 countries next year – and the results are going to be pushed centre-stage in the following round of Pisa rankings.

The tests, run every three years by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, have become among the most widely used measures for global education standards.

And for each round of tests, one subject is chosen as the headline measure used to construct the international league table.

That lead subject is going to be the new global competence tests, when the results of tests taken in 2018 are published in 2019.

It could mean a very different set of countries at the top of the rankings, rather than the current cluster, which includes Singapore, South Korea, Finland and Canada.

Tackling extremism

But how do you assess global competence? What does it actually mean?

This week the OECD set out its framework for the new test and the thinking behind its introduction.

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Image captionThe tests want to see whether young people can recognise fake news on social media

It’s intended to find out how well young people can understand other people’s views and cultures, how they can look beyond the partisan echo chamber of social media and distinguish reliable evidence from fake news.

It’s a challenge to intolerance and extremism.

Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s director of education, says that international promises about the right to “quality education for all” now have to mean more than the “foundation knowledge” of maths, reading and science, it also needs to be about “learning to live together”.

The economic think tank says there has been so much “indiscriminate violence” in the name of ethnic or religious differences, that young people need to be taught about living alongside people of other cultures.

There are other driving factors, says the OECD, including the debate about immigration and refugees and the polarising impact of social networking, where people can be disconnected from anyone not sharing their views.

“It will help the many teachers who work every day to combat ignorance, prejudice and hatred, which are at the root of disengagement, discrimination and violence,” says Mr Schleicher.

Climate change

The tests want to find out how well students can critically examine local and global contemporary issues and how well they can understand “multiple cultural perspectives”.

As an example, the OECD suggests a question about different interpretations of evidence for global warming, in which the same information seems to have been used to produce charts supporting and opposing claims about climate change.

Students are asked to analyse the evidence and to question how data might be used selectively or how the findings of research can be influenced by whomever has funded it.

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Another set of questions are based on a scenario in which a team loses when a player walks off the pitch after getting racist abuse. Should the player have stuck it out rather than leaving the team a player down?

It’s meant to raise questions about identity, responsibility, regulations on behaviour and the politics of the crowd.

As well as questions, there will also be information gathered about students’ attitudes towards people from other cultures, interest in other countries and languages, global inequality and the environment.

But this is difficult territory – and a long way from the neater clarity of a maths answer.

Testing values

International rankings have tended to be based on subjects where comparisons in results are more straightforward.

This latest set of tests talks about “valuing human dignity and diversity” and the “need to live harmoniously in multicultural communities”.

StudentsImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionThe OECD says young people need to be able to navigate a globalised culture

It’s a much more culturally loaded proposition.

But Mr Schleicher says young people need to navigate a globalised economy and to communicate and empathise with people from different countries and backgrounds.

There’s also a more assertive underlying message of internationalism and cultural openness.

The OECD’s origins lie in the reconstruction efforts in the “rubble of Europe after World War Two”, part of a drive to bolster international co-operation, market economies and democratic institutions.

It is now literally putting these values to the test.


6 Tips to Transform Your Life in 2018

Every year, we start over.

And every year, you’re presented with the same opportunity: to change your life for the better like you never have before.

Nothing is more powerful than a blank slate, however, few things can be as intimidating as it either. If you really want to make 2018 your best and most successful year ever, where do you start? What should you do?

With the new day comes new strength and new thoughts.

– Eleanor Roosevelt

Last year, I was somewhere I didn’t want to be. Years of hard work just hadn’t turned out the way I had imagined it would and I was left in a position where I could just keep going, trying the same thing, but hoping for a different result.

Or…I could change direction and start something new.

Fortunately, I decided to start something new using the skills I’d developed over those years. And I can say happily that it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. But the thing is, it was really hard to start over, just as it’s hard when we try to start over every new year.

The new year presents us with a unique opportunity: a chance to start over no matter who we are or where we’re at in life. Knowing where to go and how to do that, though, is an entirely different story.

That’s why I’ve organized some tips that helped me transform my own life over the past year that I thought might also help you. These tips are structured in order to work as a sort of system, so you can follow them step-by-step if you’re unsure of where to start.

I hope some (or all) of these can help you transform your life in 2018:

1. Craft a vision

Before you can transform your life, you need a few ‘foundational elements’ in place. The cool thing is, if you do the work necessary to set these things up, they make the entire process much easier and more enjoyable.

The first step is to get clear on what is most important to you. This is all about figuring out what you want out of the next year of your life. Take a weekend out of January to think about what it is you want to accomplish over the next year and beyond, what you want out of life, and where you want to go.

Next, once you’ve done this, take time to craft a compelling vision of your life having accomplished or acquired these things. You’ve probably heard of a vision board before, this is the same idea. I know how cheesy they sound (I never thought I’d do one), but I’m telling you– they work. You don’t have to do one if you really don’t want to, just make sure to craft this detailed vision and at least write it down somewhere you can come back to it once or twice a day.

Crafting a vision like this is critical because it will motivate you to take and maintain action when the going gets tough. It will also help you overcome your negative self-talk by making these goals more believable over time as you read or look over it continuously.

2. Get clear on why you want it

Now that you’ve crafted a compelling vision (I.E. decided what you want your life to look like), you need to get really clear on why you want it.

A compelling vision can only motivate you to the degree that you’re in tune with why you want it, so you need to take the time to get really clear about why you want what you want. This is critical because it can help you identify flaws in your vision.

Oftentimes, we think we want something because it’s what the world has told us we’re supposedto want. But if you take the time to think hard about why you truly want something, you’ll find the real source of your desire.

Keep in mind that this often takes longer than a weekend, but if you spend some time reflecting on your life and what you’d like people to say about you in the end, you can gain quite a bit of clarity in a short period of time.

3. Create a plan to execute your goal

If you have a compelling vision and know your ‘why’, you need to create a relevant plan that allows you to take action in the most effective way possible towards that vision. Without this, we often feel aimless and lack the motivation or direction to pursue our dream.

The best way to do this is to work backwards, or in other words, reverse engineer your success. If you set a one-year goal, think forward to the end of next year and imagine what you’ll need to do to accomplish this goal. If it’s further forward, do the same.

Once you’ve got an idea of the major components of your vision by working backward, you’ll know what you need to put your time and effort into over the next year and can plan out your moves accordingly, including smaller quarterly goals.

This is critical for not just clarifying what you have to do to accomplish your goal, but for breaking down your goal into reasonable and believable chunks that highlight a clear path to your goal.

4. Develop a system for helping you stick with it

An extension of your plan, an accountability system takes over where your plan leaves off. Your plan lays the trail, it shows you where you need to travel to accomplish your vision. An accountability system, on the other hand, makes sure you stay on that trail as you’re traveling through life.

Start off by setting smaller weekly goals based on your quarterly goals. Once you’ve done this, you can gauge your performance on a weekly basis and make notes on how you can improve, staying on track every step of the way. In addition, this kind of system really helps you up your game over the long run by making small weekly or monthly improvements.

5. Allow yourself to fail (and know what to do when you fall off)

Despite all this, you’re going to fail. But it’s important to differentiate between quitting and failing.

Quitting means you’re done. It means you tried to realize your vision and live the life you desired but, eventually, no longer felt you could hit your goal and decided not to pursue it any longer. This is the worst kind of fate.

Failing means you tried to accomplish some aspect of your dream or goal and didn’t. With failing, you have the opportunity to try again another way. Quitting means you’re done.

It’s important to allow yourself to fail because it’s necessary to realize your vision. All great success stories were “failures” at some point. The difference between them and others is that they didn’t quit, they kept pushing on and figured out a different way to make it happen.

Oftentimes, we accomplish our goals in a way we never imagined. You can’t plan for what life throws at you, but you can get back up, adapt, and move forward.

6. Listen to what your heart tells you

From here on out, there’s no telling what will happen.

Sometimes, you realize you need or want to change your vision. We change, people change, and things turn out different than we imagined they would. When this happens, you need to be able and willing to listen to your heart to make the right decision for your future.

Listening to your heart isn’t easy, but the more you learn to quiet the mind through meditation or by simply listening to your intuition regularly, the more refined your ability to hear when you’re trying to tell yourself something will be.

Starting over isn’t easy, but if you have a plan in place you can put the odds in your favor. Next year is an opportunity to do something different, to become something better, so don’t let this opportunity pass without giving it your all.

I never imagined how I’d be able to transform my own life one year ago, I just knew I wanted to make a change and I set out to do just that. You never know what might happen if you do the same.