We know surprisingly little about the long term effects of Augmented and Virtual Reality, on both kids and adults. The technology, thanks to large investments of resources and talent, is proceeding faster than our understanding of how to harness it or its consequences. Software developers and hardware manufacturers desperately need the insights obtainable only through verifiable research, before establishing best practices and policies.
Don’t get me wrong. I am an unabashed technology enthusiast. I believe that AR/VR offer the most exciting new business opportunity since the invention of smart phones. Legacy just completed our first major AR project, built for new “world-sensing” Tango devices. Yet producing Crayola Color Blaster on this remarkable new mobile platform has raised many cognitive and developmental questions for our team. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of reliable, valid research to guide our many design questions. For example:
- How does a VR experience affect, if at all, the child’s developing brain and vision? What is the long term neurological impact of the two small LCD monitors and lenses, each projected at one eye, creating a stereoscopic effect and giving users the illusion of depth? Some hardware manufacturers have established age recommendations, but we already know that children are intensely interested in VR and will be using the devices regardless.
- In a world with unlimited “virtual garbage” potential, how do we direct the user’s attention towards relevant data and away from irrelevant stimuli? What does cognitive load research tell us about how to manage limited attentional resources? This may be our toughest design challenge.
- What are the societal implications of a world that has been customized to reflect our interests? What if our experience of the world is personalized through AR glasses, much as our Facebook feed is currently? Will this just further our descent into silos of interests and beliefs?
- How can we create more authentic digital tests of student or employee ability using AR/VR? What if, instead of problem solving tasks delivered via a computer or tablet, we embed virtual tasks in the real world instead? Can we build assessment tools that truly capture someone’s range of talents?
- Does memory work the same way for virtual objects as it does for real ones? In our AR game, Crayola Color Blaster, children seemed to have a hard time remembering the placement of virtual items in the room. If memory for virtual objects is worse than for physical objects, we will have to add more spatial cues to AR applications and design around that deficit.
- Can we operationalize a “sense of presence,” which many people believe results from an immersive VR experience? Are there corollary physiological measures? Does it lead to increased empathy, as some researchers maintain? Does this also imply that violent, FPS VR apps will have an outsized impact on our emotions?
I was a graduate student 30 years ago in Cognitive Psychology. Almost all of the other students in my program were preparing for a job in academia, the traditional next step. I was more interested in the application of theory, and ended up starting my own company to produce games and apps. Perhaps I should have stayed in academia long enough to study some of these important and fascinating research topics! The software development community needs answers sooner rather than later, given this technology’s vast potential for positive, or negative, impact.