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I am stereo blind, and these are my adventures in VR

The technology will impact everyone differently

PlayStation VR - Russ wearing headset Samit Sarkar/Polygon

Virtual reality has been a very hit-and-miss affair for me.

I have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which means most of the soft tissues in my body are incredibly lax, including the muscles in my eyes. I suffer from poor vision, difficulty focusing and amblyopia (lazy eye) in my right eye.

Ambylopia affects somewhere between one and five percent of people, and for me it has led to stereo blindness, or a near-total lack of depth perception. I cannot see things in 3D, which means I have difficulties with technology that tries to produce a “fake” 3D effect such as movie 3D glasses, the Nintendo 3DS and, of course, virtual reality.

These difficulties aren’t a universal or inherent part of my VR experiences, however. My reactions seem to differ between headsets. My responses to each platform have been interesting and in some cases disorienting, but I learned a bit about what I can and can’t handle with each experience.

VR isn’t one technology, it’s several

My first encounter with VR was at a convention in 2014, with a demonstration for the indie game Private Eye. The game was simple but intriguing: I was a detective in a wheelchair, and had to explore various desks and drawers to discover what had happened to me. It was running on the original development kit for the Oculus Rift, the hardware that was offered during the Kickstarter.

Oculus Rift prototype 800
The original Oculus Rift development kit

I was skeptical about using VR due to my condition, yet sat down with some optimism and excitement as the headset was placed on my face.

Unfortunately, the originally Rift was barely functional for me. I could see the game, but it was as if I was looking at a standard computer monitor through a toilet roll tube. The black edges of the visor were way too prominent; I suspect due to my lazy right eye looking more at the inner wall instead of the screen.

To add insult to injury, the screen-door effect that came with the original development kit’s low resolution made things even more obscured. It didn’t take me long to feel sick and frustrated.

This experience put me off of virtual reality for almost a year and a half. During that time, I believed that my dodgy eyes simply meant VR would be personally unusable. All headsets operate from the same basic concept — two little screens in a headset — so surely none of them would usable.

Going to an event and trying out the HTC Vive for the first time proved me wrong on that.

Some good news!

I was interested in trying the Vive after Gabe Newell made the claim that “zero percent of people” would get sick from using the Vive. In retrospect it seems like he was speaking about people with standard eyesight being comfortable, but I’m glad his comments made me confident enough to try VR again.

I played Elite: Dangerous at an event, and was shocked at how all-encompassing VR could be. Going away from that demo, I was excited to get my hands on the Vive for a longer period of time.

Vive retail Valve/HTC

An outlet later gave me the opportunity to test a Vive Pre in my home for almost two weeks, and during that time I played a couple of hours of VR games each day. That’s just about as much as my eyes and my body would allow. It was during this longer testing period that I discovered the Vive’s biggest flaw.

The hardware was having a major effect on my vision once the visor was taken off.

I believe the higher-resolution screens of the Vive, combined with the more responsive head-tracking, allowed the hardware to trick my brain into thinking it was seeing in three (simulated) dimensions. This was a neat effect while I played — seeing the world in a way I never have before — but this effect carried over into the real world in all the wrong ways.

Instead of ‘curing’ my stereo blindness, it made being awake a dizzying and uncomfortable experience. Things that were not meant to have depth, such as images on my computer screen, the texture of my walls or text in a book, suddenly had depth and would move independently of their backgrounds.

The effect meant I had to stop using the Vive that day, as it was both sickening and bizarrely distressing. The issue did not go away until I went to sleep ten hours later. It felt like my eyes had been ‘broken.’

VR was, and continues to be, so new I was not able to find anybody else reporting the same response.

I persevered and, as I still had about a week with the headset left, eventually I learned to identify the early signs of this weird effect and know when to take a break. The situation taught me an important lesson, and it also applies to people with near-perfect eyesight: if you begin to feel uncomfortable in VR, take a break. Listen to your body.

Still, the Vive had somewhat restored my faith in virtual reality. The Vive Pre and the retail Vive improved on the technology of the very early Rift model I had tried — it’s hard to know which aspect of the hardware made it more comfortable — and I learned how to ease into the experience and look for warning signs that I was beginning to feel poorly.

The experience made me eager to try out the PlayStation VR.

Even better news!

I recently had the chance to try out the PlayStation VR at EGX, a UK gaming convention, on two different occasions. It was a notably different experience from the original Oculus Rift I had tried two years earlier, or the HTC Vive I used only a few months ago.

I tried two different demos: the upcoming PSVR build of Psytec Games’ Windlands, and Crytek’s Robinson: The Journey. Both were sit-down experiences that did not make use of any sort of motion controls and were running on standard PS4 hardware, not the Pro.

I played one demo with my glasses and the other without. As my glasses are made to correct my stereo blindness as much as possible, I was expecting there to be some significant differences in my reaction to the technology depending on their use.

PlayStation VR headset Sony Interactive Entertainment

There was actually little to no difference between the demos. While the PlayStation VR combined the strengths and weaknesses of my time with the other two headsets, it somehow managed to be the most engrossing and comfortable as well. Or maybe comfortable is a bit of a stretch; it might be more accurate to say it was the least uncomfortable for me, regardless of whether I was wearing my corrective lenses.

Despite the noticeable visual downgrade from the Vive, the PlayStation VR was not the looking-through-a-toilet-tube experience of the Rift development kit for me. It had little to none of the screen door effect that had made me feel so sick in that first time with VR, which meant I could live with a few somewhat blurry textures. I’m curious to try again once the Pro is released.

The biggest advantage of the PlayStation VR was that, instead of trying to trick my brain into seeing in 3D as I felt the Vive did, it seemed to simply recreate how I see the world with my stereo blindness. I had little to no depth perception inside the game, but it felt less like a hurdle and more of a realistic representation of how I would see the demos’ landscapes were they real. This in turn meant it was less difficult to adjust back to reality after using the headset. I saw in VR the way I saw in real life, with all the comfort and drawbacks that entailed.

The negative visual effects I experienced with the Vive were still present, but only for a few minutes at most and to a much lesser degree. A certain area in my vision seemed to pulse and shudder as I walked through it, but that feeling went away after only a couple of minutes instead of the hours it had taken with the Vive. It was more like the sensation of coming out of one of those virtual rollercoaster rides. I was slightly disoriented, more sensitive to light but nothing distressing or uncomfortable.

The PlayStation VR — the most affordable headset that is running on the least expensive hardware – managed to balance the excitement of an immersive VR experience with my temperamental eyes and visual processing. Part of me was expecting the “budget” headset to be the most disorienting, but in fact it was the most enjoyable VR experience I have had yet.

Maybe, when you have various processing difficulties like me, the most expensive technology is not always the best. I’ve also had to learn to pay much greater attention to my own limits, and be aware of the early signs of VR affecting me in negative ways.

Any sign of motion sickness or even the slightest visual disturbance during frequent breaks means it’s time to stop. That may be a disappointment in the middle of an enjoyable experience but, by taking these steps, I at least get to be a part of VR. That is something I had worried would be impossible.

The best lesson I can share is this: You have to try VR to see how you’ll react in general, and that goes double for anyone with problems with their eyesight. This is new technology and, until more people with varying visual ability try it, it’s very hard to know how any condition your eyes may have will respond to the headsets.

Good luck, go slow and have fun!

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