Experts in the field of virtual reality have warned of an upcoming moral panic surrounding VR, as society gets to grips with the newly viable technology and its societal implications.

Speaking on a panel at the VR World conference this week, Denise White, former director of technology for Disney, Catherine Allen, an independent immersive media specialist, and Jeremy Dalton, the VR/AR lead for PwC, discussed the future ethical implications of virtual reality.

Image: Flickr Creative Commons/Nicolas Nova
Image: Flickr Creative Commons/Nicolas Nova

Although virtual reality has existed for some time – such as Nintendo’s tanked console the Virtual Boy in the 90s –  the platform only recently became truly usable. Now the technology is finally here, tech and media companies are pushing VR not just as an immersive consumer experience, but also in therapeutic medicine, as well as the enterprise, including in architecture and design work, for example.

Academics have voiced concerns about the ethical considerations surrounding virtual reality. Unlike passive media such as television and film, virtual reality means placing a user within an entirely virtual existence. Philosopher Thomas Metzinger of Johannes Gutenberg University, for instance, warned that society is unaware of the psychological consequences involved in stepping into a virtual body.

“There may be a risk of depersonalisation, where after an extended immersion in a virtual environment, your physical body may seem unreal to you,” he said in an interview with the New Scientist.

“Fully immersive experiences have a bigger and more lasting impact on people’s behaviour and psychology. We know from the ‘rubber hand illusion’ that our brains can be fooled into thinking that an inanimate rubber hand is our own. In VR environments, we can be fooled into thinking that we are our avatars. Consumers must understand that not all of the risks are known in advance.

“Another issue is that we are easily swayed by our surroundings. For example, a picture of eyes on a wall above a collection box makes people donate larger amounts. Similar subliminal influence in an immersive virtual environment will be easy. There are risks we will be manipulated by companies.

“What’s more, these technologies could potentially be used by the military. Virtual torture is still torture.”

The speakers at VR World acknowledged that there are unknowns surrounding virtual reality – and that other risks included the possibility people might feel more attracted to the virtual environments than reality.

“Then there’s also a meta-issue which is the public response to virtual reality,” said immersive media specialist Catherine Allen. “When VR is covered as a headline story in the Daily Mail or the Sun, what are those stories going to be? What are they going to say?

“We can look back to other technologies when they started, especially digital technologies that alter our relationships with time, space, and each other, to see that often there’s a bit of a moral panic. And so we should probably expect quite exaggerated reactions: fears around VR sex or VR infidelity, for example. ‘Are we not going to be having sex with our partners or real people anymore?’”

PwC’s Jeremy Dalton called back to the scapegoating of the videogame industry, and the launch of controversial titles like the first Grand Theft Auto. He remembered how games like these were quickly blamed by the media and politicians for gun murders, for example.

Denise White, formerly of Disney, said she does have concerns about the way VR is going to be interpreted. “I don’t think we should be controlled by fear and I don’t think that’s a healthy way for us to operate in society,” she said.

“I think that’s something we should work to combat. I think it’s about education: we should become more educated, we should have more debates together, we should get involved with industry standards bodies and begin to work together more as a global community, to say what do we think we should do about these subjects? How should we approach it? Then we can come up with sensible guidelines.”

“The technology is going to be there, you don’t have to worry about that. It’s hurtling towards us on a freight train. What we should all really be thinking about is: are your organisations ready to handle that change?”

The panel agreed that before this ‘moral panic’ sets in, the industry will need to ready itself with responses. And it will need to educate decision-makers, including politicians, on the way VR works.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard a politician talking about VR but I expect when it happens, when it does come onto the political agenda – and I think it will – we might expect some awkward language,” said Allen.

“If you’re talking about VR and ethics, coming back to digital literacy, we need the public to be literate but also decision-makers to be literate digitally, so we can make the best decisions and communicate in a way that expresses issues and challenges, ethically, early on.”

White added: “We have to take a step back and really understand, we’re not just talking about some headsets out on the market, it’s not just releasing a particular device, we’re talking about societal change happening.

“We’re sitting here and it’s very difficult to imagine this world we’re trying to describe with words, and I’m really more talking along mixed reality lines. I’m a huge, passionate advocate of mixed reality because we can see that’s going to be the seismic shift. When you actually look at companies like Magic Leap and what’s going on with interacting with the human brain, this is where you have the rub with ethics.

“It’s your eyes creating that 3D hologram projection, not a device necessarily. And so I think it’s really important to start the debate and the topic opened at a higher level so getting involved, helping the politicians to understand what’s really going on – that piece is ultimately very important because when you start talking about ethics and morality well then the law is obviously inextricably linked.

“It’s all of our responsibility. And that’s the point I’d really like to drive home. It’s not enough to go ‘that person over there will deal with it’, we all have to deal with it, because it’s the future and it will impact all of us.”