How VR Could Save Your Attention Span

How VR Could Save Your Attention Span
March 8, 2017

The sight of someone using VR is a strange one. A quiet nest of isolation, completely locked off from the outside world, fully focussed on the task at hand, be it a job simulator or learning to fix an elevator.


The critics of VR's future success often cite this isolated one player mode to be VR's biggest problem, and to be completely at odds with the era defining, social mobile based technology that has become a staple of modern life. People will not want to cut themselves off from their social feeds or be tied to one spot as convert to a world of immersive computing.


But what if virtual reality's isolation might be an advantage in the modern technical climate, which is full of all manner of distractions?


How are our attention spans changing?

In TV, Two Screen Watching has become a buzz phrase. It's what broadcasters describe watching a TV show with another device either on social media or interacting with the initial content in various ways.


They have come to the conclusion that the vast majority of people's viewing habits is not simply sitting at the television but sitting at it while using another device. And so the aim now is, of course, to make sure you are not only in front of their TV show but also that your second device is being used to talk or engage with their show too.


The result of this isn't that we are getting better at multi tasking our entertainment, but rather we are becoming insatiable in our desire for a variety of content and interaction delivered at a rapid fire rate.


A Microsoft survey of media consumption showed that the average attention span had fallen to eight seconds, down from 12 in the year 2000. This onslaught of content hitting us at all angles is arguably rewiring the way we think.


Tom Chatfield is a British writer and tech philosopher who is interested in improving our relationship with technology. "We are all amateur attention economists, hoarding and bartering our moments - or watching them slip away down the cracks of a thousand YouTube clips," he writes.


In short, with all the positive influences technology is having on us considered, we are fighting a losing battle with its effect on our attentiveness.



Sufferers of ADHD, ADD and related conditions suffered from this problem long before the modern source of digital content. ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects people's excessive activity and ability to pay attention. ADD often being used to describe sufferers of predominantly suffer the latter.


Researchers at the Department of Psychology, University of Tübingen in Germany have begun working to see how virtual reality can be used to help sufferers of ADD.


"To our knowledge, until now, no NFT study in children or adults with ADHD employing a virtual reality (VR) environment as a training setting has been conducted," said principal investigator Caterina Gawrilow, PhD.


What the team is proposing is a study into improving current therapies of ADD using VR rather than taking a whole new approach. 'We instead move the intervention from the clinician's office into the virtual classroom, where we still use cognitive restructuring and the behavioral techniques of the classic intervention."


Gawrilow and her team feel that adapting current therapeutic practices for ADD in VR rather than the current traditional approaches could be hugely beneficial. This concept of the virtual classroom and virtual therapy also offers the unique advantage of being able to use sensory input devices in VR to capture real quantifiable data on how well the students or patients are improving and responding to the experience.


A meditative escape

When Chris Milk took to the stage in front of the United Nations in 2015 calling VR an empathy machine, he was right, but so was Roger Ebert when he made the same claim about cinema almost a decade earlier.


This comparison between cinema and VR is important as the dark, phone allergic movie theatre doesn't ask for your attention, it takes it. This is where virtual reality shares the most common ground with this type of entertainment. Almost all VR experiences available now do not include any secondary avenue to communication with the outside world or another feed with content to bind your time till what your were initially watching gets more interesting.


Steph Mitesser, an ADHD sufferer, wrote about her experience when being handed a VR headset containing a 360 video of a dance battle in Senegal. She highlights how the act of watching in VR was a totally different experience for her than if a similar piece was sent to her as a YouTube link:


"VR forced me to remain present in a way that few other experiences have. In a fully immersive VR setting, I have limited agency over my surroundings, and I can't split my attention between the virtual and physical worlds. As a result, this technology has become an unlikely ally in my struggle for presence. It's an almost meditative experience."


For a technology that is often accused of blurring the lines between reality and the virtual this is far from the case. The distinction is as clear as the user taking off their headset, which is something we cannot say in everyday life as we crane neck ourselves into our virtual worlds while walking down the street or eating with friends.


The act of cinema going is on the downturn but not as much as you think given the choice is better, broader, cheaper and faster at home. This is why we still adore 'the cinema going experience' and why advertising in cinema is as popular as ever, no pop up blockers currently exist at your local Odeon, you submit to the experience completely as soon as you take your seat.


Virtual reality hinges on the idea of immersion, it's what VR hardware and software is both aiming for. And this immersion can be a true meditative escape from our content minefield, a few minutes with no other conversation, light or sound to distract you from anything other than the experience you have in front of you. Something that has become a total rarity in our technological landscape.


It's this unique feature of VR that could very well put the breaks on the re-wiring of our brains and carve out a space in our lives that we soon might never understand how we lived and worked without.

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