Tech&Innovation

Virtual Reality Affects Children Differently than Adults

Immersive virtual reality disrupts the child’s default coordination strategy, scientists show, something that should be taken into account when developing virtual reality rehabilitation protocols for children.

– Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

Immersive VR’s effects on adults are mostly unknown, but nothing is known about how it will affect young children’s sensorimotor skills. EPFL alumna Jenifer Miehlbradt demonstrated her virtual reality setup in 2016 at EPFL’s Open House, allowing users to fly drones with their torsos. VR headsets were made available to members of the general public, who were encouraged to participate by moving their torsos over a virtual terrain to avoid hazards. “I found that toddlers simply couldn’t accomplish it,” recalls Miehlbradt, “but adults had no difficulty utilizing basic torso motions to fly past the simulated barriers.” After that, Silvestro invited me to see him at his office.

At the time, Miehlbradt was under the direction of Bertarelli Foundation Chair in Translational Neuroengineering Silvestro Micera. Their virtual reality torso experiment may tell something about the development of a child’s nervous system, and no previous research has looked at the impact of virtual reality headgear on children’s nervous systems, they discovered. 80 children between the ages of 6 and 10 participated in a multi-year research conducted in cooperation with the Italian Institute of Technology. The findings were just published in the journal Scientific Reports. It shows that technology can help us comprehend motor control, according to Micera. Adults who are in good health may easily detach their head motions from their body when piloting, such as when they are on a bicycle. Multisensory integration is required for this: vision, the inner ear for balance and proprioception, the body’s capacity to detect movement, activity and position. This involves sophisticated integration of many sensory inputs.

Because children’s coordination between torso and head movement is still developing, adults and children will have some variations in behavior. According to a long-held ontogenetic paradigm, upper body coordination develops in a one-directional fashion from strict control to decoupling of the head-torso system in children as early as age 8, however the EPFL research contradicts that theory. “According to the model, children will be able to manage their upper body as a whole with hard connections between the trunk, head, and arms from the time they learn to walk at about 1 year old until they are around 6 or 7 years old. Kids learn to regulate all of their joints by this age, but they still use the stiff approach when faced with a difficult situation “in addition to his postdoc at the University of Lausanne, Dr. Miehlbradt (UNIL). While adults used a strict approach, the younger children tried moving their head and body independently while utilizing a virtual system controlled by body motions. A VR headset and a back-mounted movement sensor are required for youngsters to participate in two games. Utilizing their heads, youngsters are able to operate the games just like adults, but they struggle while using their torsos, unlike adults.

During the first game, the child’s alignment error and head-to-torso coordination are evaluated by asking them to line up their heads or torsos with a line that is shown in various orientations inside a virtual scene. The results of the trial indicate that youngsters may easily learn head control. Most youngsters underestimate their movements when asked to align their torsos with a virtual line, and try to make up for it by moving their heads. For the second game, players go to the skies in a flying simulator. The kid seems to be perched on the eagle’s back in the virtual world. The object of the game is to collect all of the golden coins that are scattered along the way. The eagle’s trajectory may be controlled either with the head or the body, much as in the previous game. Children are 80 percent closer to the target coins while using their heads to guide the bird’s flight rather than their torsos.

Because the intended orientation is matched with the visual input in VR settings, the researchers think that head control is simpler in these situations than in traditional ones. As opposed to head-to-to-torso synchronization, the torso control demands the user to separate their vision from the actual control of the vehicle. When it comes to posture, young toddlers depend more on visual information than internal feeling. When children are immersed in a virtual reality environment, their minds are distracted and their internal signals are lost. When youngsters are immersed in virtual reality for an extended period of time, it alters their coordination strategy, shifting the weight of different sensory inputs — such as vision, proprioception and vestibular inputs — in favor of vision. In addition, scientists discovered that at the age of 10, head-trunk coordination is still not completely developed, rather than the previously believed age of 8.

Journal Reference: Jenifer Miehlbradt, Luigi F. Cuturi, Silvia Zanchi, Monica Gori, Silvestro Micera. Immersive virtual reality interferes with default head–trunk coordination strategies in young childrenScientific Reports, 2021; 11 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-021-96866-8

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