Over the past twelve months, we’ve witnessed real world examples of how virtual reality tech could soon be transforming the way we live, work and play for the better. Aside from the more obvious ways it could shake up gaming, sex and entertainment, we’ve also explored its potential to breathe new life into creative industries, ensure construction sites are safer, diagnose serious illnesses and so much more.
But considering the deeply immersive nature of virtual reality, it’s also raised a number of fears and concerns about the effect such a new of breed of tech –without social context, long-term research, or a set of ethical guidelines – could have on both a personal and societal level.
This is hardly surprising. Whenever a new technology or form of media enters mainstream consciousness, it’s often applauded for its potentially transformative effects whilst simultaneously being labelled dangerous at the same time.
Researchers have long been trying to understand why some technology slots seamlessly into our lives whilst others elicit responses that range from mild caution all the way to moral panic. Back in 2011, Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist who works for Intel, spoke to The Wall Street Journal about what she thinks it is that makes tech seem threatening and can make us collectively panic about it.
She suggested that for something to cause moral panic it needs to satisfy three rules. It needs to change our relationship to time, our relationship to space and our relationship to one another. She suggests any of these on their own can be unsettling, but by combining all three you can bring about panic and widespread concern.
Not all panic is misguided
Due to the immersive qualities of virtual reality and its power to transport people to different spaces, different places, distort senses and perceptions, it’s hardly surprising that it has become a breeding ground for concern.
But let’s not forget that we’ve seen many examples of this type of panic over the past century with people concerned about everything from telephones to social media being about to irreversibly change the way we live and communicate for the worse.
There’s often a certain amount of humor and eye-rolling attached to these concerns, as older generations today look back at the things that caused their elders a certain amount of panic in their day. This means that many of us shrug off the concerns of others, believing they’re not being forward-thinking enough and embracing innovation.
But not all panic is misguided. Some of the concerns about virtual reality currently hold a lot more weight than your Grandmother shouting at you for being on Facebook and not speaking to people face-to-face as much as she did at your age. This doesn’t mean we should do away with the tech or drum up fear about it. The key is understanding the potential problems and creating a sense of responsibility to ensure we have the best processes in place to either prevent them or deal with them.
Feelings of isolation
As virtual reality is concerned with crafting virtual environments and spaces, it makes sense that one of the most obvious concerns about transporting your mind to another place is the sense of isolation this might cause and the way it can so convincingly disconnect you from the real world.
We spoke to immersive media specialist Catherine Allen, who produced two of the BBC's first VR projects.
“Perhaps extreme loneliness creeping up on people, because they spend so much time in VR, that they become detached from real people, in the real world, and hence lack any deeper bonding opportunities," could be society’s worst fears regarding VR and isolation, she explained.
"Or, could it be the fear of neglect?”
“Think of the well known cases in Asia,” she told us, “where parents have killed or severely neglected their children because they have spent so much time gaming that they have failed to address the caring needs of the real world.”
Concerns around tech and isolation raises many interesting discussions about responsibility. Should those creating the hardware and the experiences within them really have to consider how people are using their tech? Or is the onus on the individual?
“To address these challenges, we creators should think about end-to-end experiences, not just the content or software,” Allen explained.
“VR is not at its best as something to spend hours, in, away from the world. Instead it works well as a special, potent and potentially transformative activity.”
Should those creating VR experiences have to consider how people are using their tech? Or is the onus on the individual?
But there’s a fine line. It’s interesting that a lot of the things that make people panic about tech are in fact the aspects that bring about the biggest benefits. “The isolation is part of its power,” Allen told us.
“But we can play to this isolation by making experiences that use it to engender a range of personal growth opportunities; including self reflection, perspective shift, state change and concentration/flow. We shouldn’t craft experiences that encourage users to spend very long periods of time in VR, ignoring other, real life people.”
Allen also adds that “fears around isolation are a reoccurrence with many new forms of media”. But the difference here is that virtual reality can conjure up the most convincing sense of isolation that we’ve seen to date. You can feel isolated in more traditional forms of gameplay, but when your senses are all convinced you’re really somewhere else, the impact could be more than neglecting your personal responsibilities, but could instead lead to deeper rooted psychological issues further down the line.
It’s easy to label that kind of thinking as over-excessive worry, but the truth is there’s been very little research into these psychological effects as the tech is still evolving every day.
Effects on children
Albert Millis, Managing Director of VR marketing and planning company Virtual Umbrella, told us that he’s concerned about the use of virtual reality headsets by under 13’s.
“Numerous VR companies allow their products to be used by kids during events and demos,” he told us. “Although this is usually only once they have expressed consent of the parent.”
Millis explained: “Researchers have mentioned their concerns regarding children and long-term use of VR as they hypothesise it may affect ocular or brain development.”
But, conversely, he also believes that “it's essential that we don't think 'new means dangerous', until in-depth research has been conducted.”
Allen agrees, explaining that the 13 year old age limit seems “arbitrary”.
“The thing is, we just don't know the effects it might have; as there hasn't been time yet for any longitudinal studies. VR makers flouting the HMD's lower age limits should understand the risks involved to the user, and do what they can to mitigate those risks,” Allen told us.
Most experts agree that the answer is to bring in all kinds of audiences to create experiences and continue with long-term study.
VR makers flouting the HMD's lower age limits should understand the risks involved to the user. - Catherine Allen
“Co-creating with audiences is one way to mitigate risks,” Allen explained. “VR creators should also be as transparent with audiences as possible. If it hasn't been tested with kids longitudinally, but it is a product aimed at kids, they should give parents enough information to make informed decisions.”
As well as responsibility falling to creators to dream up experiences that cater to younger audiences, and researchers focusing on the physiological and psychological effects VR has on children, in the short term parents also need to educate themselves so they can decide what they allow their children to be exposed to.
Violence and violation
As virtual worlds start to resemble real worlds more and more, and sensory immersion becomes sophisticated enough to transport minds to virtual environments, it’s important to have discussions about what this means for our bodies as we navigate virtual spaces.
There have been numerous studies over the past decade about just how real our brains think virtual worlds are. And many suggest that although we’re aware we’re in a virtual environment, our brains identify virtual bodies, known as avatars, as our own in many ways even if they don’t look identical.
This means we need to think about what the implications are if an act of violence is committed in a virtual world, how sexual assault should be dealt with and what the implications of sexual contact in virtual reality could be for our own bodies and minds and those of the people we’re interacting with.
As you’d expect, these conversations are important, but something of a minefield. So little precedent has been set and many still see virtual worlds as being nothing other than fantasy, ignoring the potential long-term psychological impact an act of violence or sexual assault could have.
Never before has a form of digital media had such a scalable opportunity for experiences that involve audiences’ bodies. - Catherine Allen
As with everything on this list, elements of these discussions aren’t new. Exposure to extreme violence through video games and the effect this has on our minds has been studied for decades. In fact, lots of researchers point to it having little to no impact on increasing levels of violence in the real world, suggesting only those with underlying psychological disorders are affected. But in many ways, virtual reality is a different species.
“Never before has a form of digital media had such a scalable opportunity for experiences that involve audiences’ bodies,” Allen told us.
“Violence and sex are important aspects of the human condition that should not be shied away from - especially not in a medium that offers so much artistic opportunity. However, it is especially important to treat these areas with care towards our end user, but also, to society as a whole.”
There’s a lot to unpick here. Creators need to create ways of reporting abuse and dealing with it. We need to decide what the repercussions would be if an act of violence is committed in a virtual world. There needs to be space for those who want to explore their sexuality in a way that’s consensual and safe but maybe considered unconventional. We need to think of ways to warn people. The list of things to consider is endless.
But Allen believes that if we can create experiences that really challenge the inclusion of sex and violence to begin with, we may face less ethical minefields in the future.
“I'd urge creators to address the challenges around sex and violence in VR by never letting it be an end in itself,” she explained.
“If you’re creating a VR experience that involves either sex, violence, or both, ask yourself these questions: 1) What is the creative purpose? 2) What does this bring to: a) the user? b) the development of the medium? c) society?
“If you can't answer these questions, you may wish to revisit your initial concept and motivation,” she suggested.
Navigating social norms
It may not sound as scary as the effect VR could have on a child’s ocular development, or feelings of extreme isolation, but VR has garnered widespread attention relatively quickly, which means the way it’s going to be used and thought about in different settings hasn’t yet been properly established.
Catherine Allen explained: “VR is in desperate need of social context. Long term norms around when and where to use it are almost non-existent.”
But this isn’t something to be worried about quite so much, it just needs to be discussed. “This lack of etiquette and context is simply because VR hasn’t been a part of our culture for long enough - and culture often doesn’t move as fast as technology,” Allen told us. “Just as mobile phones and television have evolved an expected time and place, VR needs the same.”
Allen believes the responsibility here falls on those in the industry to better understand the power of the tech that’s being sold, and who it’s being sold to and why.
“The industry needs to not only create VR experiences and distribute headsets, we also need to weave cultural framing into every part of our practice,” Allen explained. “From identifying target audience, to coming up with the concept, to making it, to marketing it.”
Of course as brands attempt to create more immersive experiences to lure in customers there could be a neglect for these important considerations and a focus solely on selling headsets.
How scared should we be?
A certain degree of moral panic and concern is normal when anything that’s seen as having the potential to disrupt enters the market.
But rather than worry, stop innovating or set too many restrictions, the answer seems to be approaching the new medium with a sense of responsibility from all sides.
This can mean all kinds of things; exhaustive testing, more research being carried out, experiences being created with people from all walks of life in mind. Crucially, a need to continue to keep being open and discussing the concerns rather than laughing them off or placing the responsibility solely on the end user is key.
Sure, it’s up to individuals to make decisions for themselves, but the immersive nature of virtual reality and the fact it’s such a new kind of tech means that hardware manufacturers, creators and researchers should own a certain amount of that responsibility too.
“We're in uncharted territory and as much as we in the industry position ourselves as experts, you're learning new things and best practises every day,” Albert Millis told us. “I feel that having a level of concern and owning that responsibility is essential to creating the best technology in the future.”
No one has the answers to many of these important questions yet, it’s just too soon to know. We don’t know how to police virtual worlds, how virtual reality will fit into our day-to-day lives, the psychological impact some environments might have further down the line or how to ensure violence doesn’t take place and stop people feeling isolated.
As virtual worlds increasingly become an extension of the real world, it’s vital we keep talking, keep including everyone in the discussions and take action that will benefit the end user just as much as it benefits the sale of headsets.