Why You Lose Track of Time in VR

Gamers and other users experience time compression

Key Takeaways

  • Scientists have found that gamers who use virtual reality lose track of time.
  • The effect may be related to the fact that VR users don’t have a visual representation of their body, one researcher said.
  • A stroke survivor said she often loses track of time during VR therapy sessions.
Woman lying on seating furniture, wearing VR goggles, pretending to fly

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Losing track of time in virtual reality is all too easy, and now scientists are finding out why. 

Playing video games in VR can cause time to seem compressed, according to new research. The study found that participants who played the virtual reality version of a game first played for an average of 72.6 seconds longer before feeling that five minutes had passed than students who started on a conventional monitor. 

"Research suggests that perception depends on bodily signals such as our heart rate," Nick Davidenko, a scientist at the University of Santa Cruz and one of the study’s authors, said in an email interview. "In virtual reality, we often don't have a visual representation of our own body, and this lack of body awareness may cause us to miss cues that signal the passage of time."

Gamers Are Losing It

Researchers are trying to understand why VR users lose track of time. In the recent study, time compression was observed only among participants who played the game in virtual reality first. The paper concluded this was because participants based their judgement of time in the second round on whatever initial time estimates they made during the first round, regardless of format.

But suppose the time compression effects observed in the first round are translatable to other virtual reality experiences and longer time intervals. In that case, it could be a big step forward in understanding how this effect works. 

"Research suggests that perception depends on bodily signals such as our heart rate."

While there are many informal descriptions of time compression in virtual reality from those who have experienced it first-hand, it’s still an active area of research. For example, one previous study applied virtual reality time compression to shorten the perceived duration of treatment for chemotherapy patients, but that experiment didn’t compare virtual reality with conventional screen formats.   

"Time compression happens in many situations, especially when we are highly engaged or immersed in an activity, such as playing a video game or engaging with others," Davidenko said. "Virtual reality seems to exacerbate this effect."

The VR Time Warp Helps a Stroke Survivor

It’s not just gamers that seem to lose track of time in VR. Deb Shaw, who has suffered three strokes, has been using VR for therapy exercises over the past four years. 

"In almost every case, when I put on the headset and sensors then enter the world of VR, time is left behind," Shaw said in an email interview. "Initially, on purpose; as this is now my time to be in a fun, captivating VR world, I know that I can’t be interrupted, and I will only stop when I reach a natural break in a therapy session or feel like my body needs a quick rest."

woman wearing VR headset while sitting on a red couch

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Losing track of time is a benefit for Shaw. 

"During the exercises of being engaged in Healthcare VR, I want the total experience, and a timer or clock is not always necessary," Shaw said. "The one exception is when the competitive nature in me kicks into gear, and I need to have a sense of how much I accomplished compared to last time in the same experience—am I ahead or behind?"

Sometimes, losing track of time can be the whole point of using VR. True REST Float Spa is a chain that lets you float in actual water while using virtual reality as a way of relaxation. Clients travel to outer space in VR as a way to relax. 

"Time compression happens in many situations, especially when we are highly engaged or immersed in an activity, such as playing a video game or engaging with others."

"Float Therapy often puts our clients in the theta wave brain state, which is most similar to the dream-like state. In this brain wave state, much like when you are dreaming, time perception is distorted," Mandy Rowe, the company’s head of franchise development, said in an email interview. "This feeling is very similar to meditation."

Rowe said she often loses track of time while at the spa. 

"Watching a space orbit in the Float Pod felt like a journey, not like an hour-long movie," Rowe said. "It was my journey floating through outer space without having to focus on anything—not even my thoughts—as I drifted through the stars. When we passed the sun and other brighter elements of space and earth, I was slightly more alert, and as it got darker, I was falling asleep."

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