.UCSC study reveals that virtual reality can alter time perception

When immersed in an exciting video game, enthusiastic gamers may easily lose track of time. As virtual reality games—where players are transported through their headsets into new computerized worlds—rise in popularity, this may be especially true. Now, researchers at UCSC have found that virtual reality indeed warps users’ perception of time, and that they are more likely to underestimate the amount of time spent playing a game than those in front of a 2-D screen.

Virtual reality is a blossoming technology with a wide range of applications. Recently, Good Times covered how researchers are using virtual reality technology to communicate the dangers of sea level rise to Santa Cruz residents. Virtual reality games can also be used for physical therapy or education on social and political issues. And local virtual reality companies like Impact Creative are helping major companies like Google, as well as nonprofits such as Rising International, provide immersive, engaging content.

By making users feel as if they are in a different environment than they actually are, virtual reality can be a mind-boggling experience. However, the psychological consequences of entering this new space are not well researched yet.

“This is the first time that there’s been experimental evidence that virtual reality manipulates time perception,” says Grayson Mullen, an undergraduate at UCSC at the time of the research and lead author of the study.

Mullen came up with the idea while playing a virtual reality game himself and realizing he didn’t know how much time had passed. Wanting to investigate this experience scientifically, he designed and coded a game that could be played by participants both in virtual reality and on a conventional monitor. For the experiment, he recruited 41 UCSC students to play the game in both formats and asked them to stop when they believed five minutes had passed.

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The study found that participants who played the virtual reality version of the game first played for significantly more time than those who started in front of a regular computer screen. On average, they played for 72.6 seconds longer, or 28.5% more time. Mullen published his results in Timing & Time Perception on May 3.

“VR is introducing this new thing called presence, or the feeling that you’re in a different environment than you actually are, and this was never really possible before,” says Nicolas Davidenko, associate professor of psychology at UCSC and senior author of the study. “Compression of time perception is just one of many facets of what could happen.”

Research shows that gaming addiction in general can have serious consequences, such as negatively impacting mood or sleep schedules. Mullen’s study shows that virtual reality game developers may need to be extra careful and include ways to remind gamers about how much time is passing.

However, the compression of time perception also has positive implications. Virtual reality can be used as a distraction during medical treatments like chemotherapy, for example, to make the duration feel shorter.


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