“We’re not willing to define what ‘bad’ is,” says Palmer Luckey, the 22-year old founder of Oculus.
The Rift, Oculus’s much-anticipated consumer virtual reality headset, explodes onto markets in Spring 2016. The first real wave of adopters will hit soon, and mass adoption of virtual reality will be here in the next several years.
Virtual content on the Rift will not be vetted. The API is open-- anyone can develop any kind of content. Although the positive possibilities via virtual as well as augmented reality technology are exciting, very real questions need to be asked.
How will we as a society handle the ethical and moral concerns surrounding immersive reality?
If we spend 8+ hours a day consuming media now, how much more will we consume when the technology improves enough to be comfortably immersive? At this point, the recommended time spent in VR is no more than 15 minutes. Nausea is a common physical complaint, and there are many possible ethical and moral complaints as well.
When we choose to step into an immersive environment, what will our choices be? Gamers have pushed the bulk of early VR content, and it is a simple observation that many video games are violent and reward strategic thinking and not moral decisions.
Concerns regarding possible negative side effects of virtual violence are certainly not new. Some parts of society have blamed real world violence on video games, and we have attempted to legislate them since the 1980s when discussing the proximity of arcades to schools.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that first-person shooter and open-world crime games are forms of protected speech (i.e., Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto). This case, Brown vs. Entertainment Merchants Association, did leave open the possibility that the law could eventually judge games on a double standard. This could potentially apply to immersive reality.
However, a legal case (prompted no doubt by some kind of tragic incident) is required to challenge the 2011 ruling.
It’s not a question of if there will be a VR-prompted heart attack or death, the question is when. Our sympathetic nervous system blasts into overdrive when threatened-- even if that threat is only perceived.
If our brain can’t tell the difference between an angry boss and a hungry tiger, how will your brain (and body) be affected by being in the middle of a virtual reality gunfight or being pursued by virtual zombies?
In addition to actual physical consequences, let’s consider the ethical implications of one of the key drivers to technology adoption: pornography. Porn has always been one of the first things to lead tech adoption en masse-- just look at VHS tapes, CD-ROMs, DVDs, and on-demand TV as evidence.
Porn will be a $1 billion industry by 2020, and is already a driver of early male adoption of virtual reality. Without judging pornography itself, there are very real privacy concerns. Downloadable body scans are currently being developed. What happens when your face, available on all of your social media platforms, is taken to create an avatar of you without your permission?
Violence and pornography are specific examples of ethical concerns surrounding immersive reality. What about the danger of wish fulfillment?
What happens when we can simulate whatever we desire? If we can take a tour of Thailand from our sofa, why travel in real life? Why explore? Real travel is oftentimes inconvenient. In virtual reality, we could opt out of annoyances and aggravation not just from traveling but whenever we would like.
What kind of choices will we make?
Fear-mongering of the dangers of immersive reality is useless, and ineffective. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle, nor should we. Immersive reality will become a part of daily life.
We do, however, have a responsibility to consider the moral implications of this emerging media technology. We have a human responsibility to create virtual content in ethical ways…. even if it is just another layer in the matrix.