VR: Regulation and side effects

December 2, 2019

Asked by Innovation Observatory whether VR headsets are likely to become medical devices in the future, the UK’s Medical and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency provided the following answer: “We have already seen devices that utilise aspects of Virtual Reality as a component part particularly in mental health treatment”.  More information on the agency’s guidance on apps as medical devices is available here.

VR is still in its early days and its impact on human body and mind is yet to be thoroughly assessed. However, various sources point out that immersive reality and pharmaceutical products may have a thing in common – side effects. Reports (see for example here and here) mention risks of dizziness, disorientation, eye strain, nausea and even seizures if too much time (more than 35 min) is spent with VR glasses on. Whether it can lead to addiction is a question that is yet to be addressed. At present gamers, not patients, may be exposing themselves to significant health risks as binge gaming can go way beyond therapeutic time limits. The world record for continuous hours of VR gameplay is currently 36 hours; healthcare VR products never exceed sessions of 35 minutes, and patients are under constant medical observation.

VR headsets create the 3-dimensional illusion by showing different images to each eye, but are still not capable of generating consistent “focus cues”, which causes discomfort in user. These are considered the main causes for dizziness and nausea.

Simon Sherrington, MD

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Developers are working to reduce motion-to photon latency

two Meanwhile Sony has adopted a different approach for tackling the issue that some refer to as cyber sickness. The company filed a patent application for a bionic sensor VR headset that can detect any unhealthy reaction to the immersive virtual experiences. The patent does not deal with motion-to-photon delay but rather monitors heart rates and eye movement to alert the user at the first signs of nausea. Once a potential risk has been detected the headset could be programmed to disable VR content or alert those around the VR headset user.

Canadian company Lemnis Technologies is also addressing nausea-evoking latency. It has come up with a way of adjusting the VR headset in accordance with the specifics of the human eye, thus allowing users more control over the virtual reality environment. Its platform called Verifocal tracks the user’s eyes to enable natural accommodation response (accommodation is the process by which the eye changes optical power to maintain a clear focus on an object as its distance varies).

Minimising motion-to-photon latency and other technical limitations is one of the primary tasks the industry is being faced with as it will not only help make VR experiences more realistic but will also reduce the effect of cyber sickness on VR users.

VR is a promising new technology whose future in healthcare will be decided by the adoption of the right regulatory rules, careful risk assessment and constant dialogue involving developers, manufacturers, doctors and patients. Despite all the roadblocks, the medical world is already learning to see through VR glasses.  What will happen next is a matter of trials and investments, but most of all, putting patients first.

This is the third of 3 articles on VR in Healthcare. The previous two articles are In Pain? Don a VR Headset and Impact of VR on Healthcare.

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