Let’s Not Split Virtual Hairs:
VR Can Be Dangerous
It is my opinion that the Mixed Reality Field is still very much in its infancy. However, with Oculus having shipped 10 million Quest 2s , we very much see that VR is breaking into the mainstream. Not to mention the many other companies that are launching, or have already launched their own solutions for AR and VR. This makes it incredibly important to discuss the ethical dilemmas that face the field in the coming years. The main three that come to my mind are, Safety, Effects of Immersion and User Security. VR has a bright future but it requires continuously solving and resolving these issues to maintain a satisfactory and enjoyable growth.
The year is 2006, The Nintendo Wii has just been released  and it is awesome. Motion interaction with games help the player feel more connected to the activities they are performing onscreen. Wii Sports includes baseball, bowling, boxing, gold and tennis. All high energy, high movement sports. It’s stressed with big warning screens that the safety strap is important, but many people end up not putting them on or removing them from the remote entirely. TV screens and people alike face the harsh reality of high velocity plastic. Even with the safety straps on, people hit each other, ceiling fans, lamps, etc. These are the most obvious safety concerns of immersing people physically in games, in addition, flashing screens, electronics being worn on the person, overheating, all are additional dangers that have to be considered when creating electronic gaming devices. I can personally attest that since owning my own Quest 2, I have already had 4–5 occurrences where I have knocked into my surroundings and thankfully only bruised my ego and a couple knuckles on a ceiling fan. Already games come with a lot of warning about the harm that can be caused by sitting in front of a flashing screen for hours, but let us be honest, when is the last time you really read through the details of a warning label.
This is a major issue when VR headsets are not just increasing the physicality of the game, but removing the real world site from the players. How do you make sure that your user doesn’t end with broken limbs because the dive by instinct and land head first into a wall? Most VR headsets use software “guardians” that are a virtual fence drawn in your real space. These show up at any time you start to approach the border of your drawn guardian and can help you steer back to safety, however, having dove into the menus myself I know that there are easily accessible options to turn this off. How do you ensure the safety of users, and those around them, when you give them the ability to turn those features off? The advent of the seat belt had similar issues but now it is law to wear them. The VR community really needs to look into creating agreed upon requirements for the physical safety of their users. Maybe the answer isn’t clear but these are the discussion we need to have. Can we in good conscious allow people to disable systems that protect themselves and others from harm. This also opens a side discussion on the autonomy of humans and freedom to make their own decisions, but we can save that for another time. So I suggest that there be an industry agreed upon set of safety measures that must exist in all VR platforms, this at least ensures a minimum level of safety as we move forward into a really cool future.
Okay, so physically you can feel a bit safer knowing that there are some features that make sure you don’t hurt yourselves or others, but what about the effects of immersion on the mind? Anyone who has played VR can tell you how quickly it is to lose yourself in the world, no matter the quality of the graphics. As a VR Dev myself, I can say that is my goal. I want players to feel in tune with the ecosystem, I want the mechanics to feel natural, and I want you to feel a part of the game in every way. What happens when your virtual game causes real reactions though? As discussed above, physical harm is a real issue, and even simple games like Richie’s Plank Experience have led to some viral videos of people falling over because the visual information their eyes are receiving are so convincing that the body responds in reality. What about the genuine fear I’ve felt seeing a badly textured zombie reach over my shoulder? To some these are positives. The game does its job making the player feel the experience to the max. But what about those who do not wish to feel such panic, or what about the issue of motion sickness? Solutions for the scare factor already exist in the form of game rating and reviews, helping players pick games that reflect the experiences they wish to have. And more recently features like motion vignetting have helped combat motion sickness when player motions increases. But I imagine these are the first among many problems that will emerge as more people begin to experience the immersion of VR. I am thankful that this question of immersion is not a quiet one. Already there is a big response from the developer community to find solutions that make games more comfortable and immersive, not one at the expense of the other. One of my personal favorites is creating invisible ramps over stairs to eliminate the jarring vibrating of an XR Rig climbing a staircase in game. It feels closest to my experience climbing stairs and eliminates a potential cause of flashing lights and motion sickness. As long as the community continues to monitor the pulse of the player base and make options available to players that face certain challenges when playing these games, we can really see a bright future.
Finally, we come to an issue that has no current solution because it is a carry over issue from the beginning. How do we secure ourselves? The advent of the lock helped make our homes feel safer, but made it possible to lock people in places. Security cameras made it easier to identify criminals, but they also allowed for the average person to be recorded without their knowledge. With each innovation in security we also see people take advantage of it. So the fight to help people stay safe rages on. With the advent of the internet, we saw security take on a new form. Protecting intellectual property, identity, passwords, information, and more happening all over the world is no easy feat. Those are the most evident issues, but then came Big Tech. Companies that created really cool products, but then they began to see their info, and to whom? Just about anyone willing to pay for it. Turn on the news and you’ll see plenty of stories about the “violated trust” of our info being sold, our information being leaked, and availability of illegal content all over the web. This is a massive task to tackle. Anytime anyone seems to make a step forward we see new ways of breaking in. In the VR arena, the meta-verse is the big news. If you’ve seen Ready Player One, you know just how wonderful it can seem, and it truly is an amazing idea, but how do I protect myself in a world where a growing amount of my interactions are digital. How do I make sure my face and avatar aren’t used against my will? These are massive concerns as we begin to immerse ourselves more in the digital. Even workplaces are possibly going in the meta-verse. Codex avatars , by Meta, are going to be an amazing way to interact with people while presenting a very real and human feel. They are lifelike models of yourself that you will be able to use in the meta-verse. But how do I secure my own image, how do I make sure people can’t cosplay as popular figures and cause havoc? “We don’t know yet” is the simple answer. Blockchain apps, better encryption, facial identification, etc. are all being lobbied as options to secure your online identity, but we don’t have solid solutions yet. This remains probably the biggest concern as we walk towards a VR world. The only way to make sure we see ourselves protected is, as a community, to make our voices heard. As developers, we pause and consider the actions we are taking. Can we release updates knowing that we don’t have the best way to control them yet? It is only as a strong unified community that we can make sure we see positive change and protections come into existence, and I am confident we can make this happen.
 “Wii.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 21 Nov. 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wii.
 Pettit, Harry. “Facebook Shows off Eerie Virtual Human Avatars That Look like Real People.” The US Sun, The US Sun, 29 Oct. 2021, https://www.the-sun.com/tech/3957288/facebook-virtual-human-avatars-real-people/#:~:text=META%2C%20formerly%20known%20as%20Facebook,events%20without%20leaving%20their%20homes.
 Gartenberg, Chaim. “Meta’s Oculus Quest 2 Has Shipped 10 Million Units, According to Qualcomm.” The Verge, The Verge, 16 Nov. 2021, https://www.theverge.com/2021/11/16/22785469/meta-oculus-quest-2-10-million-units-sold-qualcomm-xr2#:~:text=Meta%20has%20sold%2010%20million,since%20it%20launched%20last%20October.