Future Tense

Eight Rules to Help You Stay Safe in Virtual Reality

A boy tries a virtual reality headset at Paris Comic Con on Oct. 27, 2017.
A boy tries a virtual reality headset at Paris Comic Con on Oct. 27, 2017.

In December 2017, a Russian man reportedly died by falling into a glass table and bleeding to death while playing a video game in virtual reality. Similar deaths have been occurring far too frequently from smartphone distractions, and VR—if it becomes as popular as I suspect it will—is sure to claim additional victims.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Since I first starting studying VR in the late 1990s, I’ve developed some safety tips, based on the VR demos I’ve given to tens of thousands of people over the past two decades. With well-timed catches, I have saved more than a handful of VR newbies from very serious injury (or worse) and have also had a few misses when I wasn’t quick enough or forward-thinking enough to stop a VR user from randomly diving into a wall or trying a spontaneous backflip. The beauty of VR, as well as its curse, is that once immersed, you immediately forget the physical world exists. This is great for the mind but perhaps not so much for the body. So here are my eight rules for staying safe in VR.

1) Keep it to 20 minutes. Not much I’ve seen in VR is worth spending more than 20 minutes inside, but even if you find the most spectacular scene that boggles the mind, take a three-minute break. Have a drink of water. See some natural light. Remind yourself of where your body actually is. Unlike the real world, that VR sunset isn’t going anywhere, and it’s worth taking a short break to avoid disorientation and possible simulator sickness.

2) Unless the designers of the demo made walking a critical piece of the experience, sit down. A vast majority of accidents can be prevented this way. Not all of them—I’ve had people smash their heads into desks. Even though the users knew the desks were there before the goggles went on, they forgot when they tried to lean closer to a virtual object on the virtual ground. Which brings us to …

3) Remove dangerous objects from the space. Tables with corners are the biggest offenders, but given the news out of Russia, it’s worth explicitly mentioning glass tables. Also, metal rakes, lit candles, cactus plants, etc. Take the time to clear the entire VR tracking space.

4) Think about your animals. You won’t know if they wander into your space, and of course cats and dogs don’t know you can’t see them. Keep them in another room.

5) If you decide to do room-scale VR in which you walk around—which typically makes for the most engaging VR experiences—take a lap once you have the goggles on—that is, touch all four walls as the simulation starts. Give your body muscle memory of the physical constraints of the room. In my lab at Stanford, we embed this protocol into most of our experiments. Even if the exercise breaks the illusion, having a physical reminder of walls is a good thing. Virtual spaces are infinite; living rooms are not. The more you can remind yourself of this, the better off you will be.

6) Have a second person not using VR to act as a “spotter,” especially for room-scale VR. I know that VR as an industry will struggle to make its way into every living room if every user needs a second person to watch and assist, but I just don’t see any way around this. By definition, good VR challenges you with wild and intense experiences you wouldn’t have in the real world. Ducking, flinching, and even fleeing are all perfectly rational responses to many off-the-shelf VR experiences. Other than a vigilant friend who cares about your safety, I don’t know any way around this. Like scuba diving, VR is best served by the buddy system.

7) Watch out for safety warnings. Many VR systems will issue alerts as users approach walls—but they are just accurate enough to be dangerous, as users learn to trust them unconditionally. They are correct lots of the time, probably even most of the time, but not all the time. Whether it’s a failure of hardware (a camera slipped), a software bug, or the ever-changing world itself (i.e., a chair just happens to fall over once you go inside), mistakes will happen. You’re much better off trusting your spotter buddy and your instincts about the room itself.

8) Watch your substances. VR is mind-expanding enough.

My friends who started going to Burning Man in the mid-’90s came back with a joke: “Safety Third.” It was a new take on the old adage, basically proclaiming that fun is well worth getting roughed up a bit. But VR users aren’t signing up for a four-day lawless binge in the desert. Many of them are simply trying out the newest electronic gadget that showed up underneath their Christmas trees. Even if it disrupts “presence”—the secret sauce of virtual reality that makes the experience feel real—safety needs to come first.

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Jeremy Bailenson

Jeremy Bailenson is a professor of communication at Stanford University, founding director of Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, and author of Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality Is, How It Works, and What It Can Do.