Everything Parents Need to Know About VR
From the View-Master to the Oculus Quest, virtual reality technology has come a long way in a few short years.
We’re at the cusp of a turning point for virtual reality (VR). Some very cool tech -- like the Oculus Quest -- is out now, delivering on some seriously sci-fi promises. You see, it’s now no longer a matter of if your kid will enter VR one day -- we are edging closer to the moment of it just being a, well, reality. Let’s get quickly caught up to speed on the current state of VR.
You watch a movie like Ready Player One and think this virtual wonderland inside cheap, ubiquitous goggles is straight-up science fiction. Between Nintendo’s VR take with cardboard contraptions and the recent launch of Oculus Quest, we are finally at an inflection point that pundits have been forecasting for years: When good VR experiences no longer require expensive gear and can go truly wireless, we will see a lot more people ready to dive into the virtual future.
What were some of the challenges with VR in the past?
Whether you played on an HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, or PSVR, it was a setup nightmare. Set up sensors in your playspace. Make sure the cabling was in place…and here’s hoping that you had suitable lighting (especially in the case of the PSVR). And that’s saying nothing of the extra money you needed to cough up to join the elite. High End PCs. A PS4 Pro. In short, it was a not-cheap endeavor for the hardest of hardcore.
Mobile VR was coming up as well – whether it was simply using your phone, or a self-contained basic VR unit, they offered a limited experience. Tilt your head, use one controller. It was just a taste. A tease. They lacked the ability to really explore a virtual space. But you gotta start somewhere, right?
What are some of the family-friendly VR options?
From the Galaxy Gear to Google Cardboard, kits coming out in the past few years offered low-grade VR solutions that require you to drop in a smart device. They seemed like easy entry points for younger users, but it wasn’t really considered until the View-Master and, more recently, “The Big N” released VR kits aimed squarely at kids aged 7 and up.
We contacted Nintendo about their thoughts on when it’s appropriate for kids to play. Their response: “[We have] considered this issue carefully and determined that the VR mode of Nintendo Labo: VR Kit should only be used by children 7 and older. Parents can restrict the display of VR mode for children 6 and under by accessing in-game settings using the goggles icon. Even when VR mode is turned off, the experience is designed to be enjoyable for all ages. Parents also should monitor their children’s play time and remind them to take frequent breaks.”
View-Master claims the same, stating on their FAQ page: “We have worked with an ophthalmologist to ensure that View-Master VR is optically safe for use by children. As with all screen time, we recommend parents follow pediatric guidelines to determine age appropriate viewing times.”
It may be coincidental, but one thing that both View-Master and Nintendo Labo: VR Kit have in common -- and why they can claim to be good for kids ages 7+ -- is that they both need to be held up to you head. Neither provide a head strap option. One is plastic anchored by a phone that runs the app. While Nintendo’s Labo VR Kit has you holding up a complex DIY cardboard controller and a Nintendo Switch.
As adults, we don’t think about that, but consider the 7-, 8- or 9-year-old that has to hold this thing to their face in order to play. How many minutes do you think that they are able to hold their arms out before they get tired? While it becomes an unspoken endurance test, it also potentially shortens play time and forces them to take breaks.
To its credit, Nintendo’s DIY peripheral line has done an impressive job of melding the virtual and real simply by leveraging the gyroscope and light sensors in the Nintendo Switch Joy-Cons. Through those, it performs the equivalent of 3DOF (three degrees of freedom) tracking in a virtual space.
As for the virtual games themselves on the Labo VR, we found that Blaster game / attachment was probably the most satisfying of the bunch, but it has a limited lifespan. Even the free VR conversions for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey were a little underwhelming. At the very least, Labo shows the potential of how limited VR could work for a younger audience.
(Our very own Amanda Farough took this Labo kit for a virtual spin. You can read about her time with it, right here.)
What's so special about the Oculus Quest?
We say this without hyperbole: Oculus Quest is the game changer. With its release, it addresses many of the shortcomings of the previous VR generation while threading the needle between power, price and portability.
It’s a self-contained unit that offers full-fledged 6DOF VR. Meaning, you’re able to strap on a headset and quickly walk around your virtual room. Considering the $400 starting price, this really does feel like it’s offering the best glimpse of the sci-fi, instant-entry-to-VR future. But why does it work so well? Let’s break it down….
Oculus Quest makes setting up VR simple
Install an app on your phone. You sync up with the headset. Drop AA batteries into the two awesomely comfortable Touch controllers. That is probably the most time consuming part of the process.
The Guardian system that keeps you from bumping into everything
The real heroes here, though, are the fisheye cameras on the front of the HMD (head-mounted display) and the Guardian software. The cameras let the Quest see the outside world. By simply tracing a line in the ground, you’re determining your play space. You get too close to the edge and you drop out of the virtual and your cameras activate showing you the “real” world. The effect feels like you’re on a virtual stage and when you go beyond the barrier, you’re off the set and behind the scenes. Walk back “on-set” and the game world is waiting.
At a quick virtual button press in the main menu, you can toggle a stationary / sitting option so that any experience that’d have you sitting still is also a breeze to activate.
Game demos, refunds, and free ports
One of the nice things that has come up is that Oculus gives people the opportunity to try out some experiences without the risk. When you fire up your Quest for the first time, a number of pre-installed demo games are waiting. Try ‘em out, and if you like what you experience, you can buy the full versions.
But what about when you buy a game that either isn’t working for you or literally making you sick? Get a refund! We tip our virtual caps to Oculus for offering a two-hour / 14-day grace period when you buy a game. If you play a game for less than two hours, you have two weeks to request a refund. You can read the full policy right here.
One other option is going to be music to the ears of Oculus Rift owners: You don’t have to buy every game twice. Oculus has unlocked the ability to buy once, play anywhere with some games. So, for instance, if you already owned Robo Recall on the Rift, you don’t need to shell out money for the game for Robo Recall: Unplugged on the Oculus Quest. That, however, is up to the developer.
You can stream your experience so others can join in on the fun
Half the fun in VR is being able to share that awesome experience with others. Make a party out of it by casting your in-headset experiences to a nearby tablet or your TV! All you need is the Oculus app installed on the device or a Chromecast-enabled set in your house.
Then there’s the games and apps…!
Oculus spokespeople in the past have all but said that the Quest falls squarely between the low-end Oculus Go and the bleeding edge, PC-bound experiences on the Oculus Rift / Rift S. A lot of what we’re seeing with the launch titles are excellent ports from the Rift -- like Beat Saber, Superhot VR, and much more. Playing games like Robo Recall or Creed: Rise to Glory, it’s impressive to see how well they carry over. In fact, if you’re looking for our picks on some of the best games you can play with your VR-ready family members, we’ve got you covered. Head here for the 10 best Oculus Quest Games for Your Kids.
However, that also brings us to one thing we need to reconcile with the Quest...
The Oculus Quest is not fully for kids
You will get blown away by the experience. You, standing there with a dopey grin on your face as you’re slicing, swinging, shooting, and virtually dancing. Inevitably, your kids will see that and either ask to play -- or mercilessly shoot video of your shenanigans and broadcast it on YouTube. Or Both!
So, how are you supposed to answer them?
Oculus spokespeople have been very transparent saying that this experience is not for children under the age of 13. Beyond that, it’s up to a parent’s discretion. While we will explore the science and expert opinions of why elsewhere, we at least have one small coincidental theory. Because there is no physical reminder to take the headset off -- it’s strapped to your head as opposed to requiring the user to hold something up -- they are more likely to use it for longer stretches than recommended.
So, when can my kid try VR?
Previously, SuperParent has explored the question, “Can VR be harmful to my kids?” Seeing as how prices are now coming down and the power behind the tech is vastly improving, there’s a very real chance that with the introduction of Labo VR and the Oculus Quest, you’re going to see more kids willing and able to plug in. As we’ve said, it’s no longer a matter of “if,” but “when.”
Psychologist, mother, and President of Hit Point Studios, Ariella Lehrer, Ph.D. tells us that, "For teens, 14-18, VR in small doses is probably fine. Most games are designed with play sessions no more than 20 minutes in length, which is about how long teens should play before removing the head gear and giving their eyes a rest. I recommend that parents limit the total amount of time per day teens can use VR, perhaps to one-hour total.” Last year, she advised that folks with younger kids wait until this generation of VR with the likes of the Quest (or later) and -- more important -- for more research into the impact of VR on kids to bear out.
Leia Shum, MASc student/researcher at the University of British Columbia, informs us that there are, “Short term effects like cybersickness, eye soreness, neck strain, which can be more difficult for children since the (VR) headsets are not designed for their size or weight-bearing capacity.”
So, when is VR safe for your kids? The “easy” answer for now varies depending upon whom you’re asking. More lightweight VR experiences with limited time on a handheld device seem to skew a little younger while the head-strapped options are rated for kids in their teens.
The safest bet is to use a combination of company recommendations and some good ol’ fashioned common sense, observing how your little virtual explorers handle what they see.
We are currently conducting additional research and will have a deeper dive into this specific question soon (and will update this post).
Have you been testing out VR with your kids? We would love to hear about your experiences! Chat with us in the comments, or tweet us @superparenthq.