After exploring a virtual world, some people can’t shake the sense that the actual world isn’t real, either.
When Tobias van Schneider slips on a virtual reality headset to play Google’s Tilt Brush, he becomes a god. His fingertips become a fiery paintbrush in the sky. A flick of the wrist rotates the clouds. He can jump effortlessly from one world that he created to another.
When the headset comes off, though, it’s back to a dreary reality. And lately van Schneider has been noticing some unsettling lingering effects. “What stays is a strange feeling of sadness and disappointment when participating in the real world, usually on the same day,” he wrote on the blogging platform Medium last month. “The sky seems less colorful and it just feels like I’m missing the ‘magic’ (for the lack of a better word). … I feel deeply disturbed and often end up just sitting there, staring at a wall.”
Van Schneider dubs the feeling “post-VR sadness.” It’s less a feeling of depression, he writes, and more a sense of detachment. And while he didn’t realize it when he published the post, he’s not the only one who has experienced this. Between virtual reality subreddits and Oculus Rift online forums, there are dozens of stories like his. The ailments range from feeling temporarily fuzzy, light-headed, and in a dream-like state, to more severe detachment that lasts days—or weeks. Many cases have bubbled up in the last year, likely as a response to consumer VR headsets becoming more widely available. But some of the stories date as far back as 2013, when an initial version of the Oculus Rift was released for software developers.
The notion of virtual-reality devices having a physical effect their users is certainly familiar. Virtual-reality sickness, also known as cybersickness, is a well-documented type of motion sickness that some people feel during or after VR play, with symptoms that include dizziness, nausea, and imbalance. It’s so common that researchers say it’s one of the biggest hurdles to mass adoption of VR, and companies like Microsoft are already working rapidly to find ways to fix it.
Some VR users on Reddit have pointed out that VR sickness begins to fade with time and experience in a headset. Once they grew their “VR legs,” they wrote, they experienced less illness. Van Schneider has noticed the same thing. “[The physical symptoms] usually fade within the first 1–2 hours and get better over time,” he wrote. “It’s almost like a little hangover, depending on the intensity of your VR experience.” Indeed, VR sickness is often referred to as a “VR hangover.”
“I was very fatigued. I was dizzy. And it definitely hits that strange point where the real world feels surreal.”
When I spoke with Aardema on the phone, he had been wondering why his paper from ten years ago had suddenly been getting so many hits on the science-networking site ResearchGate. His study measured mild dissociative effects — think, “I see things around me differently than usual” — so he emphasized that there is a need to explore how these effects may relate to mood and depressive feelings. “There was some indication in our initial study that feelings of depression were important in relation to dissociation,” he said.
I’ve never felt depersonalization, but I have felt derealization, the result of a severe panic disorder I developed when I was 25. It was nothing short of nightmarish. When the effects were tolerable, it felt like I was permanently high on psychedelics — a bad trip that wouldn’t end. When it was at it’s most intense, it was like living in my own scary movie: You look around at your everyday life and nothing feels real. Even faces that I knew and loved looked like a jumbled mess of features.
VR’s very purpose is to make it difficult to distinguish simulation from reality.
This, Aardema pointed out, could explain why books, movies, and video games don’t tend to cause the same kinds of dissociative aftereffects. Books don’t have moving visuals, and the movement in movies and video games is usually not intense enough. It also helps that these experiences are usually enjoyed while sitting still. So they just don’t have the same capacity to offset balance and vestibular function. (Though for some, movies can cause motion sickness. And for those people there is Moviehurl.com — a website devoted to rating movies on their likelihood of giving a viewer motion sickness.)
One evening during my DPDR phase, I was riding in a cab down a main street in the West Village, looking out the window. It was summer and there were tourists everywhere, and the light before sunset was still lingering. It was a perfect time to be out in the street, walking with friends and family, taking in New York City. But I remember the distinct feeling of hating everyone I saw. They had brains that just worked, brains that collected streams of sensory information and painted a satisfying picture of reality, just like brains are supposed to do. They most likely never questioned if what they were experiencing was real.
For some people, at least, it seems that VR could change that. In March, Alanah Pearce, an Australian video game journalist and podcast host, recounted troubling post-VR symptoms after the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. “I was very fatigued. I was dizzy. And it definitely hits that strange point where the real world feels surreal,” she said. “I’m not going to go into that too in-depth, because it’s something I haven’t yet grasped. But I know that I’m not alone, and other people who play VR feel the same thing, where it’s like, nothing really feels real anymore. It’s very odd.”