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Playing VR warps a person’s sense of time

Playing virtual reality appears to warp a person’s sense of time, in that time seems to move more slowly. This finding has medical implications.

A researcher with the European Space Agency in Darmstadt, Germany, equipped with a VR headset and motion controllers. — Photo: ESA, via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)
A researcher with the European Space Agency in Darmstadt, Germany, equipped with a VR headset and motion controllers. — Photo: ESA, via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

Psychological research has shown how a special form of ‘time compression‘ occurs in relation to the use of virtual reality

Scientists based at University of California – Santa Cruz have discovered, from thousands of hours of observational study, how playing games in virtual reality (VR) generates ‘time compression.’ This means, for the VR user, time goes by faster than the person thinks.

To reach this inference, the scientists compared time perception during gameplay with conventional monitors together with virtual reality. This led to their conclusion that this unusual effect is especially linked to the virtual reality format.

The findings are based on people playing a maze-like game either via a virtual reality headset or through a conventional format. Each subject played in both formats, although the version of the game played was randomized.

When playing, each subject was asked to stop playing the game whenever they felt like five minutes had passed. This was under conditions where no clocks were visible. This mean that each participant was required to draw their perception in relation to the passage of time.

The subject’s own assessment of time was assessed against actual time. Repeatedly, this this demonstrated a gap between participants’ perception of time and the reality.

Those who played the virtual reality version of the game took around 73 seconds longer before they perceived that five minutes had elapsed, compared with participants who played on a conventional monitor. This equated to almost 30 percent more time for the VR players.

As to why this happens, it could be that, in virtual reality, a player has less body awareness.

Interestingly, the time compression effect was seen with those who played the game in virtual reality first. This is because initial time estimates were based on whatever happened when playing the first game, irrespective of the second.

Does this research have any practical application? It could do in the medical field, in terms of shortening the perceived duration of treatment of an unpalatable treatment, such as with chemotherapy patients (if such patients were equipped with VR headsets).

“This is the first time we can really isolate that it’s not just that you’re playing a video game, or the content of whatever you’re seeing,” Mullen said. “It’s really the fact that it is virtual reality versus a conventional screen that contributes to this time compression effect.”

Time compression could be useful in some situations — like enduring an unpleasant medical treatment or passing the time on a long flight — but in other circumstances, it could have harmful consequences.

Lead researcher Grayson Mullen adds: “As virtual reality headsets get more comfortable to wear for longer periods of time, and as more immersive games are made for this format, I think it would be good to avoid having it become like a virtual casino, where you end up playing more because you don’t realize how much time you’re spending.”

The research paper is titled “Time Compression in Virtual Reality” and it appears in the academic journal Timing & Time Perception.

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Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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