Can Virtual Reality Cauze Seizures?

If you’re particularly new to the world of Virtual Reality (VR) you’d probably want to ensure that wearing this technology doesn’t lead to any long-lasting or immediate medical complications.

At this point, it is common knowledge that those who are predisposed to having seizures should stay away from bright, flashing lights and patterns. TV programs and video games often provide warnings should this be an issue. Does VR do the same? Furthermore, could VR cause a seizure?

Virtual Reality can indeed cause a seizure if the person using them has epileptic conditions or sensitivity to rapidly changing light. Manufacturers discourage the use of VR for people with such preconditions. Even if you have no previous related medical occurrences, you should keep in mind that prolonged use of VR and exposure to rapidly changing light patterns can increase the chance of seizure onset.

What Exactly is a Seizure?

Before we proceed into uncovering whether or not VR is capable of this, we first need to understand what a seizure really is, and what can cause them.

According to the Mayo Clinic, A seizure happens when an uncontrollable electrical discharge occurs within the brain. During this occurrence, the victim no longer maintains conscious control over motor function. In most cases, the victim falls to the ground while the body involuntarily spasms for the duration of the event.

What Can Cause a Seizure?

Most common cases of seizures which may lead to epilepsy have to do with damage to the brain. This can occur as a result of malformation of the brain due to an incorrect genetic sequencing. Infection to the brain during birth or after can lead to a similar situation.

Furthermore, stroke, cancer, low blood sugar (in diabetics) and other ailments can lead to the onset of a seizure. In healthy adults, new onset seizures can occur in those above the age of 65.

What in VR Images Could Cause This?

Most of us know that flashing lights and patterns can cause seizures. We’ve seen as much from the warning signs of TV programming and video games. Considering that Virtual Reality headsets use displays to depict information, could we expect the same thing to happen in this regard?

The term ‘photosensitive epilepsy refers to individuals who are triggered by “flashing lights”. The reason this happens is due to a repetitive pattern of neural activity within the brain referred to as gamma oscillations. These have a tendency to arising when viewers are exposed to certain black and white bar patterns.

While most VR applications will not have continues strings of flashing light patterns, VR manufacturers typically advise against the use of VR should users have epileptic conditions or sensitivity to rapidly changing light. Sorry, this definitely leaves out VR raves.

The instructional booklet which comes with the Oculus Rift states that only about (1 in 4000) individuals may experience severe dizziness, seizures or blackouts triggered by these particular light patterns.

What this means is that even if you don’t have a history of epilepsy, you shouldn’t have too much of a good thing as the likelihood of VR-induced seizure increases with the amount of time spent in VR.

Should you ever feel compelled to spend an obscene amount of time in VR, watch the video below to be dissuaded.

Anecdotal Cases

Pokémon Shock

Have you ever watched the ‘Electric Soldier Paragon’ episode of Pokémon? Chances are if you didn’t catch the original airing of the episode on December 16, 1997, you didn’t. That’s because this episode was banned, and would forever be known as the ‘Pokémon shock’ incident.

Because this episode was set in ‘cyberspace‘ the animators thought it would be fitting to use a form of animation using rapidly blinking red and blue lights to simulate an explosion in cyberspace. The result was 658 kids sent to the hospital suffering dizziness, nausea, and in some cases seizures and temporary blindness.

Pokemon "Electric Soldier Paragon" episode caused hundreds of childen medical issues.
1997 “Electric Soldier Paragon” Pokémon episode

While this didn’t exactly happen with a pair of VR glasses, the point is that something like this could happen from the exposure of two rapidly blinking primary colors. Imagine the number of games or videos that are likely to have this in VR application.

Bodysuit Captures VR Seizure

The platform known as VRChat allows players to create, publish, chat and explore worlds with users from around the globe.

Platforms like this allow users to exist in a virtual reality environment with the use of 3D virtual representations known as avatars. For some characters, the ability to control their characters means using a motion-tracking suit. This allows the character within the game to mimic the movements of the person wearing the suit.

VRChat had an incident of player experiencing a seizure.

On one occasion this particular setup unfolded the scene of a real-life dilemma. At first, players thought this was a prank (common practice on gaming sites).​

After several moments players realized that this person was experiencing real distress. Because players can’t physically interact with each other, there was little that the bystanders could do as the seizure proceeded.

Luckily, the player soon recovered to the relief of those witnessing the event. Many offered words of encouragement and wished the player safety for future sessions.

Use With Caution

We’re only human, and there are times when we simply ‘do’ instead of thinking of future consequence. It’s unclear whether or not the individual in the bodysuit example was aware of the risk. To avoid similar situations, keep this in mind.

Use the Buddy System – Although most manufacturers will advise against the use of VR with any signs bordering seizures in the past, many (young) people may disregard the warning.

If there is even a slight chance of this, it would be a smart idea to have someone near you who’s capable of offering aid. Those experiencing episodes that last over 5 minutes need critical emergency care.

Although we wish we never have to be in that kind of situation, its best to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Here are some tips from WebMD you’ll be glad you had should you ever find yourself in this scenario.

While it may seem that VR is similar to TV in this regard, the potential threat shouldn’t be taken lightly. Virtual Reality Head Mounted Displays (HMD), capture the user’s full field of view. This means that there’s no looking away should a particular series of lights begin flashing.

Beyond this, enjoy and use with care. Remember to take regular breaks to minimize strain on the eyes, use the buddy system, and always read the safety to ensure optimal use of the technology. ​​​

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Martin Rakver

I am a software engineer and tech enthusiast. During my free time, I like to immerse myself in the world of virtual and augmented reality, which I believe will be more and more prominent in the years to come.

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