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Will immersive virtual reality be too much for kids and their parents?

Spoiler: The bunny dies in one tested ending. And in VR, that triggered much stronger feelings than it would have done in a regular movie.

In “Invasion,” a computer-animated VR short interactive movie, Earth is populated only by two fluffy white bunnies — and you are one of them.
Baobab Studios

A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

There has been quite a bit written about virtual reality and children, but the analysis has focused on the risk that viewing VR content could have on eyesight. The majority of VR headset manufacturers are setting age limits for users. Oculus Rift and Samsung’s Gear VR headsets have a 13+ age requirement. HTC, while not setting an age limit, warns against letting young children use the Vive. This is certainly more of a “better safe than sorry” tactic than the result of any conclusive findings on the impact of using VR on “growing” eyes.

Kids, of course, face the same issues as adults when it comes to motion sickness or the risks of hitting objects in real life while moving about in a virtual one. More recently, Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Mario Bros, took a very cautious approach to VR when it comes to kids, saying more research needs to be done to make sure that the kids are safe and that parents don’t have to worry.

Physical vs. emotional and psychological impact of VR on kids

While there seems to be enough concern about the physical impact of VR on kids, I am personally more concerned about the emotional impact VR is likely to have. Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab has been studying VR for more than a decade. In 2009, the lab published the results of a study that focused on children’s memory and VR. A group of children played with whales underwater through VR. A week after the experience took place, they were asked about it. Some 50 percent of them said they remembered it as if it actually happened in the physical world.

This weekend, I went to the movies with my daughter, who will be 9 in December. We saw “Pete’s Dragon” in 3-D. During the trailers, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” played and, as has happened many times before when a scary scene was shown, the glasses came off and her fingers went in her ears. Thus far, my daughter has only tried child-friendly games or educational experiences in VR, so she was either able to understand it was fiction, or she had experienced something like visiting the Natural History Museum in New York City — she felt like she was visiting somewhere familiar. Our movie experience made me wonder how she would react to a story told in VR.

How is storytelling different in VR?

Earlier in the year, at the Samsung Developer Conference, I attended a session on VR where Eric Darnell, the chief creating director of Baobab Studios explained the difficulties of storytelling in VR. Baobab created a computer-animated VR short interactive movie called “Invasion,” where a bunch of aliens come to take over Earth.

Instead of being populated by humans, Earth has only two citizens — two white, fluffy, super-cute bunnies — and the viewer is one of them. When the storytelling becomes interactive, you sometimes lose control over the pace and composition of the story, but the team at Baobab was able to come up with a technique to inspire the viewer, through sound and visual clues, to follow the path they wanted.

Interactivity brings an extra layer to the story; this can be good or bad. Darnell talked about a scene where there are aliens in front of the viewer while the other bunny is behind him/her. This was fun for some, as they felt they were really in the story — they could “feel” the bunny’s presence behind them. However, others were stressed by the experience, as they were not sure whether they should look in front or behind.

Even more interesting was how viewers reacted to one tested story ending, where the other bunny dies. Killing the bunny triggered much stronger feelings than it would have done in a regular movie. You are in the story; you are the bunny’s companion, yet there is nothing you can do to save it. You can see how this must be much harder on children — and adults, for that matter— I cried watching “Pete’s Dragon”! — than a traditional screening, even a 3-D one.

VR experiences might be virtual but the emotions they triggers are very real

What makes the emotions even stronger is that the child will be completely “alone” in this world, and taking the headset off for a few seconds might not be the first thought. If you think of those instances where you are wearing a VR headset along with headphones, you can easily see how what we call “immersive” can turn into a terrifying experience for a child. The quick TV channel switch when something inappropriate comes on, or the burying of the face in the armpit, will not work, as parents will be left clueless as to what is happening inside the headset.

Because of this, I believe that VR content aimed at minors, young children in particular, calls for more stringent guidelines so that once the concerns for any physical risk will go away, and they will, we do not forget about the emotional and psychological impact VR could have.

Of course, children are not the only segment that could find VR experiences too immersive. Like for many other platforms before VR, sex and violence are big sellers for both games and content. While it might not be down to platform owners to determine what is bad and what is not, I believe there is a duty that lies with app store owners and content publishers not to censor but to warn. Not an easy discussion to have, and one I am sure we will hear more about in the future.

Carolina Milanesi is a principal analyst at Creative Strategies Inc. She focuses on consumer tech across the board; from hardware to services she analyzes today to help predict and shape tomorrow. In her prior role as chief of research at Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, Milanesi drove thought leadership research; before that, she spent 14 years at Gartner, most recently as VP of consumer devices research and agenda manager. Reach her at @caro_milanesi.

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