When I was a kid I can remember my mom threatening me that if I sat too close to the tv it would hurt my eyesight. She also told me similar things like if I crossed my eyes they would stay that way and if I swallowed gum it would stay in my stomach for seven years. Technology has progressed and we are faced with the question: Is VR built for kids?
A similar concern about age has come up about using virtual reality headsets. I found there are two ways to look at this question: physiological and physical. In this post we are going to focus on the physical questions. What size head is too small to fit in a headset? Are headsets too heavy for small children? Do younger children understand and respond to visual cues inside the headset that may lead to safety issues? (If you have questions about motion sickness, check out Meredith Thompson’s post on getting adjusted to using VR here.)
An obvious practical question about using VR headsets is the fit. Just like hat sizes, it is reasonable to assume headsets have limitations to how far they can be adjusted. If the VR headset cannot be sized to fit smaller heads, the experience will be blurry and ineffective. We tested the Oculus Rift on over 100 4th grade students at the end of last school year. The headset was able to be adjusted for every one of them. Students didn’t complain about having to readjust the headset or the weight. No problems about adjusting the Rift for head size.
But what about differentiating between the virtual world and your physical environment? Once in a VR headset you lose sight of your physical environment and if the experience is highly interactive, you may even lose track of which way is forward. This leads to a question of safety. After all, there is a good chance that you are in a room with a table, chairs, and other furniture. Immersive VR headsets use a “guardian system” or “play area” to create a safe physical environment. The guardian system is a handshake agreement between the user and the software where the user agrees, for the safety of themselves and the equipment, they will stay inside a virtual “fence”. The digital fence is a visual reminder you are wandering too far from home and need to head back.
So how do younger students respond to this “agreement” between themselves and the system put in place to ensure their safety? During a community event, we almost found out the hard way that small children may not abide by the guardian system. One little girl was on Streetview inside Google Earth and walked down the “street”, headset still attached, and almost pulled the laptop off the table. Noted. Early elementary may be too young to acknowledge and respect the visual warnings of a guardian system.
At this point, we can agree that with proper one-on-one supervision, young children are able to physically use our VR equipment and smaller heads would not be a problem. However, there was one problem we didn’t anticipate. Hand size. The smaller 4th graders we tested had trouble reaching all the buttons on the Touch controllers without adjusting their hands. They struggled to navigate and interact with their virtual environments due to physical limitations. Based on these observations we concluded that 4th grade is probably the earliest the Oculus Touch controllers can be used, and even then, there may be some smaller kids who struggle with the controllers.
Conclusion: Is VR built for kids? Active adult supervision and placing content and time restrictions is the best practice. Physically, because of hand size, 10 years of age is a good baseline. Widespread access to the technology is new and research takes time. With that in mind, I would recommend responsible usage. The best rule of thumb is to limit exposure to 3-5 minutes at a time for young, developing minds and avoid violent/graphic apps.
If you are interested in reading about the physiological side of the debate, please check out Emily Ludolf’s article here.