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The Potential Impact of Apple's Vision Pro Headset on Our Cognitive Functions.

The debut of Apple's mixed-reality headset prompts inquiries regarding the time spent in a virtual substitute for our reality.

By ZenXPublished 2 months ago 6 min read
The Potential Impact of Apple's Vision Pro Headset on Our Cognitive Functions.
Photo by Roméo A. on Unsplash

Apple unveiled its highly anticipated Vision Pro mixed-reality headset this month. The tech giant characterizes the device as a "spatial computer," offering an alternative to conventional laptops or desktops with a starting price of $3,500. Apple's promotional materials depict individuals using the headset for basic tasks like sending emails, and a press release from June 2023 stated that the Apple Vision Pro is designed for extended daily use. Early adopters have already showcased themselves using the device for extended periods, even wearing it while sleeping.

However, many experts remain doubtful about the headset's ability to replace physical monitors, keyboards, and mice. Concerns have been raised about potential issues such as motion sickness, increased social isolation, and other unforeseen consequences associated with prolonged use of such a device.

Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, emphasizes that while virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are powerful tools for creating immersive experiences, a headset like the Apple Vision Pro may not always be a practical solution for everyday tasks. According to Bailenson, there is no need to wear a headset to perform simple activities like reading emails or entering data into a spreadsheet.

Apple's lightweight goggles, weighing 1.4 pounds, utilize sensors like a lidar scanner and a camera array to immerse users in what is known as "mixed reality." The headset features outward-facing cameras that provide a real-time view of the user's surroundings, while two small screens positioned in front of the eyes display an interactive digital environment. Meta's Quest 3 headset, launched in October 2023, also employs a similar "pass-through" video technology. Mixed reality offers a blend of virtual and real-world elements, distinguishing itself from traditional VR and AR technologies.

Pass-through technology, while offering exciting advancements in VR and AR, comes with its own set of challenges. A recent study conducted by Bailenson and his team highlighted the short-term effects of mixed reality, revealing that wearing a headset can significantly limit a user's visual perception and potentially alter social behavior and motor function. Additionally, pass-through tech is prone to quirks such as visual delays, distortions, varying color saturation, dimming light, and objects appearing too close or blurry. Despite the impressive specifications of devices like Vision Pro, the image resolution still falls short of what the human eye is accustomed to perceiving.

The current recommendation from the research team is to refrain from wearing these goggles for extended periods of time each day. The authors emphasize the need for caution and moderation when it comes to companies advocating for daily usage of these headsets, urging for more thorough examination of their effects. There is a scarcity of long-term studies on the utilization of VR or AR. Bailenson is presently overseeing a group of participants who regularly engage with mixed-reality headsets, but it will take several months before the findings of that study are made public.

Rabindra Ratan, an associate professor of media and information at Michigan State University and a co-author of the recently published study, highlights the uncertainty surrounding the impact of reduced peripheral vision or visual distortions on individuals who spend hundreds of hours each month in virtual reality. Ratan speculates that prolonged exposure to altered vision may affect eye movements and potentially worsen overall vision. The use of prismatic spectacles in previous research indicates that people can adapt to visual disturbances, but adjusting to altered vision initially requires a period of adaptation that can last for hours or even days. Returning to normal vision is a quicker process, typically taking only minutes. However, the disconnect between the mind and body during this adjustment period can significantly impede basic motor tasks and pose safety risks. For instance, riding a bicycle while wearing a headset was found to be much more challenging. In a worst-case scenario, if a cyclist's headset battery were to die, their vision would be completely obscured. Additionally, using an Internet-connected device while navigating can be highly distracting.

People are already driving vehicles in public while wearing mixed-reality headsets. Shortly after Apple launched the Vision Pro, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a warning against driving with a VR device due to online videos showing drivers wearing headsets. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg emphasized on social media that all consumer cars, even those with advanced driver-assistance systems, still need fully attentive human drivers.

The harsh reality of simulations is that AR, VR, and mixed-reality headsets often lead to "simulator sickness," which includes symptoms like nausea, headache, dizziness, and eye fatigue. Bailenson, Ratan, and their colleagues experienced simulator sickness in most of their device sessions, even when the tests were less than an hour long. Suffering from even mild simulator sickness could affect people's quality of life, activity levels, and productivity. This concern leads Bailenson to fear that individuals might start relying on these devices for their daily work.

Moreover, there are potential effects on memory. In a 2014 experiment, Frank Steinicke, a professor of human-computer interaction at the University of Hamburg in Germany, spent 24 hours alternating between two-hour VR sessions and 10-minute breaks. Throughout the study, Steinicke began to question what was real and what wasn't. The research paper notes that several times during the experiment, the participant was unsure whether they were in the virtual environment or the real world, mixing up artifacts and events between both realms. Similarly, a 2009 study revealed that VR use could lead children to form false memories, despite the lower image resolution and quality in VR 15 years ago.

Steinicke believes that as audio-visual displays improve, virtual and real content will continue to merge. Despite the findings of his 2014 experiment, he envisions a more positive future in computing where these tools beneficially replace keyboards and touchpads.

The impact of immersive digital environments on users' cognitive abilities and social interactions can have significant implications for their productivity and learning. A 2019 study revealed that individuals wearing augmented reality headsets performed better on basic cognitive tasks when interacting with virtual human characters. However, when faced with more complex challenges, their performance declined. Additionally, the study found that those wearing AR devices reported feeling less socially connected to individuals who were not using headsets.

Mark Roman Miller, an assistant professor at Illinois Institute of Technology specializing in the behavioral impacts of augmented and virtual reality, highlights the isolating nature of wearing virtual or mixed-reality headsets. He emphasizes that in-person collaboration becomes more difficult due to the inability to share what one is looking at without additional software acting as intermediaries.

Miller acknowledges the potential of these devices as powerful tools but cautions against the distracting nature they may possess. He draws a parallel between his treatment of his smartphone and shoes, leaving them at the door upon arriving home. According to Miller, augmented and mixed-reality devices could worsen the issue of divided attention already prevalent among smartphone users.

Lisa Messeri, who spent time with a group of tech experts and artists in Los Angeles exploring the possibilities of VR, echoes Miller's concerns. She believes that the negative impact of smartphones on real-life social interactions will only be magnified with the use of mixed-reality headsets. While acknowledging the exciting work of the techno-optimist community, Messeri criticizes Meta and Apple for their predictable marketing strategies regarding mixed-reality devices.

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