Virtual Reality Distorts Your Perception of Time

UC Santa Cruz psychology researchers discovered that playing virtual reality games causes an effect known as “time compression,” in which time passes faster than you think. Grayson Mullen, a cognitive science undergraduate at the time, collaborated with Psychology Professor Nicolas Davidenko to design an experiment that compared the effects of virtual reality on a game player’s sense of time to those of conventional monitors.

The research team compared time perception during gameplay using conventional monitors and virtual reality to determine that this effect is only found in virtual reality. The findings have been published in the journal Timing and Time Perception.

Mullen created a maze game that could be played in both virtual reality and traditional formats, and the research team enlisted the help of 41 UC Santa Cruz undergraduate students to put it to the test. Participants took part in both formats, with researchers selecting which version of the game each student began with at random. Both versions were essentially identical, but the mazes in each differed slightly, so there was no repetition between formats.

Participants were instructed to stop playing the game when five minutes had elapsed. Because there were no clocks, each person had to estimate the passage of time-based on their own perception of the passage of time.

Psychology researchers found that playing games in virtual reality create an effect called ‘time compression,’ where the time goes by faster than you think.

Prior studies of time perception in virtual reality have frequently asked participants about their experiences after the fact, but the research team wanted to integrate a time-keeping task into the virtual reality experience in order to capture what was happening at the moment in this experiment. Researchers recorded the actual amount of time that had passed when each participant stopped playing the game, revealing a discrepancy between the participants’ perception of time and reality.

The study discovered that participants who played the virtual reality version of the game first played for an average of 72.6 seconds longer before feeling like they had been playing for five minutes than students who started on a traditional monitor. In other words, when compared to traditional formats, students played for 28.5 percent longer in virtual reality.

This time compression effect was only observed in participants who first played the game in virtual reality. The paper concluded that this was because participants in the second round based their time judgment on whatever initial time estimates they made in the first round, regardless of format. However, if the time compression observed in the first round can be generalized to other types of virtual reality experiences and longer time intervals, it could be a significant step forward in understanding how this effect works.

Virtual reality warps your sense of time

While there are many informal descriptions of time compression in virtual reality from people who have firsthand experience with it, it is still an active area of research. One well-known prior study used virtual reality time compression to reduce the perceived duration of chemotherapy treatment for chemotherapy patients, but that experiment did not compare virtual reality to traditional screen formats.

“This is the first time we can really isolate that it’s not just that you’re playing a video game or that you’re seeing content,” Mullen said. “It’s really the fact that we’re using virtual reality rather than a traditional screen that contributes to this time compression effect.”

Time compression may be useful in some situations, such as enduring an unpleasant medical treatment or passing the time on a long flight, but it may be harmful in others.

“As virtual reality headsets become more comfortable to wear for longer periods of time, and as more immersive games are developed for this format,” Mullen said, “I think it would be good to avoid it becoming like a virtual casino, where you end up paying more because you don’t realize how much time you’re spending.”

According to game addiction research, losing track of time while playing can have a negative impact on a player’s sleep cycle and mood. These effects may be more pronounced in virtual reality, but Mullen believes that game designers can help to mitigate the risk by incorporating a clock that appears at regular intervals during gameplay.

It will also be critical to determine why virtual reality appears to contribute to time compression. Mullen describes one possibility in the paper, which is related to the fact that in virtual reality, a player has less body awareness. Nicolas Davidenko, a coauthor, and advisor on the paper, explained why this could be significant.

“When you look down in virtual reality, you might see nothing where your body normally would be, or you might see a schematic of a body, but it won’t feel like your body,” Davidenko explained. “There are theories that we may rely on our heartbeat and other bodily rhythms to assist our brain in tracking the passage of time, so if you have a less vivid sense of your body in virtual reality, you may be missing the pulses of this timekeeping mechanism.”

Future experiments to test this theory may yield new insights to assist designers in maximizing the benefits and minimizing the harm from time compression as virtual reality technology advances.