VR and Time Compression– A Great Example of How Deeply Immersion Works
Time flies when you’re having fun. When you find yourself clock-watching in a desperate hope to get something over and done with, it often feels like the hands of the clock are moving like treacle. But when you find yourself really enjoying something,
It’s no surprise at all to hear that this phenomenon is particularly prevalent when it comes to virtual reality. After all, we all know that the more immersive the experience, the much more engaging and enjoyable it often tends to be. Researchers have in fact given this case of technology warping our sense of time a name: time compression.
The Marble Game Experiment
Grayson Mullen and Nicolas Davidenko, two Psychology professors, conducted a survey in 2020 to see if there was any measurable scientific proof to this widely-reported phenomenon. And indeed there was!
They invited 41 undergraduate university students to play a labyrinth-like game, where the player would rotate a maze ball to navigate the marble inside to the target. One sample group played the game via a conventional monitor, while the other played within a virtual reality environment. The participants were asked to stop playing and press a yellow button at the side of the maze once they had sensed five minutes had passed.
With all the responses timed and recorded, the study ultimately found that the students who played the VR version of the labyrinth game pushed the button later than their conventional monitor counterparts, spending around 28.5% more real time playing!
Why does it happen?
We don’t exactly know how VR locks us in a time warp. There’s no denying that video games in general can be extremely addictive for some players. Even conventional games are so easy to get immersed into that you could forget whereabouts in the day you are.
Palmer Luckey, founder of Oculus, thinks it could boil down to the way we rely on the environment around us to sense the passage of time. Here is what he said during an interview at the 2016 Game Development Conference:
“I think a lot of times we rely on our environments to gain perceptual cues around how much time is passing. It’s not just a purely internal thing. So when you’re in a different virtual world that lacks those cues, it can be pretty tough…You’ve lived your whole life knowing roughly where the sun is [and] roughly what happens as the day passes…
In VR, obviously, if you don’t have all those cues — because you have the cues of the virtual world — then you’re not going to be able to make those estimates nearly as accurately.”
When you play a game on a conventional platform such as a console or a PC, you’ve got other things going on around you to give you a good indication of what the time is, like the sun and the lighting, and any background noises (e.g. the sounds of rush-hour traffic). With virtual reality, you block all this out, so you can’t rely on these to help you tell the time anymore.
What does this mean for us?
Time compression isn’t just relevant when it comes to enjoying entertainment: we can also use it to help people in other contexts. For example, Susan M Schneider led a clinical trial exploring the possibility of incorporating virtual reality experiences into chemotherapy sessions. This medical procedure can be very stressful for cancer patients, but the results of the trial found clear evidence for the VR simulation reducing anxiety levels and perceived passage of time, acting as a comforting distraction from the chemotherapy.
But despite all these potential benefits, we can’t forget the elephant in the room of gaming addiction. The time-warping effect of virtual reality also sadly means it’s easier for players to spend hour after hour stuck in their virtual world, which sacrifices their health as well as their time! Not only does this increase the risk of motion sickness, but it can also throw off your natural body clock, negatively affecting how well you sleep and thus your overall wellbeing.
It kind of sounds like one step away from the Lotus Casino from Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series – a casino where time never stops and nobody ever wants to leave. In their study, Mullen and Davidenko urge game developers not to take a leaf from the Lotus Eaters’ book. While a near-addictive feeling in your audience is a positive sign of a successful immersive application, it shouldn’t be something you exploit to put them at risk.
Here are a couple of recommendations to help players know when it’s time to stop:
Miller, R. (2016). Oculus founder thinks VR may affect your ability to perceive time passing. [online] The Verge. Available at: https://www.theverge.com/2016/3/17/11258718/palmer-luckey-oculus-time-vr-virtual-reality-gdc-2016
Mullen, G. & Davidenko, N. (2021). Time Compression in Virtual Reality. Timing & Time Perception. 9 (4). pp. 377–392.
Schneider, S.M., Kisby, C.K. & Flint, E.P. (2011). Effect of Virtual Reality on Time Perception in Patients Receiving Chemotherapy. Supportive Care in Cancer. 19 (4). pp. 555–564.
To view the full report on
Portalco delivers an alternate method of delivery for any VR or non-VR application through advanced interactive (up-to 360-degree) projection displays. Our innovative Portal range include immersive development environments ready to integrate with any organisational, experiential or experimental requirement. The Portal Play platform is the first ready-to-go projection platform of it’s type and is designed specifically to enable mass adoption for users to access, benefit and evolve from immersive projection technologies & shared immersive rooms.