Augmented and virtual reality offers almost infinite possibilities from training the surgeons of today and tomorrow, raising social awareness and inspiring change through the use AR/VR media, to milestone life decisions like purchasing your first home after taking a virtual tour. However, as with all new technologies, we should be aware of the ethical challenges that can emerge from these new technologies. As AR/VR continues to grow from an emerging technology to one that is most definitely here to stay, it’s important that we take a few minutes to discuss and explore a few of the ethical challenges associated with it.
As with any technology that we introduce into our lives, privacy is at the forefront of our concerns (or at least it should be). Nowadays users have limitless options to interact with others, and participate in a virtual or augmented world around them. As more and more users enter the virtual world they need to keep in that the privacy problems of the real world exist there as well. Whether it be the problem of corporations buying up your personal data, or the credit card and banking information that you use for purchases in the virtual world being vulnerable to cyber attacks. While these problems of the real world are present in the virtual world, it is up to engineers and developers of VR to protect your private information.
These engineers already put forth quite an effort to protect users from things like unwanted content (such as protecting children from adult content) through the use of flagging events, and reporting. As well putting forth an immense effort addressing the problems associated with VR’s immersive experience such as dizziness and motion sickness. The same amount of effort if not more needs to be spent on a users’ privacy. Rather than continuing in the trend of selling off your personal data to third party companies, they should implement a focus on helping keep their users’ private information private.
As the Covid-19 world around us in 2020 continues to tread lightly in regards to social distancing and online learning, the world of VR continues to expand. With more and more users using it as an escape from the pandemic, or a platform in which they can socialize and interact with friends. The schoolyard problems of bullying and peer pressure become a major concern.
Peer pressure and bullying is a problem that we have all either witnessed, been a victim of, or maybe even a participant and it affects children, teens, and adults alike. These problems have already evolved to transcend our playgrounds onto social media platforms, and it seems inevitable that we will see them impact the social aspect of virtual reality. The internet offers an anonymity to people that they can hide behind, or where they can forget that their words and actions can have real world consequences. We have seen these cause and effects played out on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, even texting, sometimes with tragic results. So it’s more than fair to say that with the more immersive experience that extended reality environments offer, these actions could cause even more severe damage for users in real life.
Loss of Reality
As augmented and virtual reality has surpassed the transition point from a novelty or passing fad, to the next technological leap in our ever evolving connected world. The tech giants of our generation like Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook have invested heavily into this new virtual world. With these major players on board it’s only a matter of time until the graphic quality and experience is almost, if not completely indistinguishable from our everyday lives. For now VR users are tethered to a head mounted display (HMD) of some kind, however products like omni-directional treadmills and haptic feedback have begun to hit the consumer market. Offering yet another level of immersion, and bringing users closer to an experience similar to the one depicted in Steve Spielberg’s 2018 film “Ready Player One”. While these products and others down the road will without a doubt add to the growth and popularity of an extended reality experience, we have to ask at what cost.
There have all ready been numerous cases of people that have loss their savings and real world social skills due to an unhealthy amount of time spent in virtual environments. The documentary “Life 2.0” from Jason Spingarn-Koff explores this topic in depth in regards to the game Second Life.
“This feature-length documentary follows a group of people whose lives are dramatically transformed by a virtual world — reshaping relationships, identities, and ultimately the very notion of reality” -IMDb
People spends hundreds of thousands of dollars and just as many hours creating, as the name suggests, a Second Life. Where they live as an Avatar of their own creation and imagination. For many users their only “real-life friends” are people they have never actually met in real life (IRL). Some Second Life users have even created revenue streams within the game. In essence meaning that their personal time and the time they spend working are one and the same, and both spent in this virtual world. This devotion, or obsession, depending on your point of view, can blur the lines between reality and virtual reality quite easily. Many Second Life users even report that they are happier, more confident, and more comfortable in their Avatar’s skin. As augmented and virtual reality technology continues to advance and bring the virtual world closer to our own, it is a safe assumption to believe that some people will prefer to spend more time in AR/VR rather than interacting or participating in the real world.
As with any technology that continues to grow and become more accessible and intertwined within our lives, we need to remember to explore it cautiously. Augmented and Virtual reality, as of now, are from reaching their full potential and it is already amazing to see the vast amount of applications out there. Whether it is being used to train the pilots or surgeons tomorrow, or helping us shop for homes or furniture by letting us preview them in a convincingly real extended reality, AR/VR is bound to become much more commonplace in our everyday lives. Just remember to be kind to the other users you meet, and explore it safely. Lastly, we all need to remember to take a break every once in awhile and enjoy the real world, or might end up like citizens of“WALL-E”.
Oculus: “Introducing VR for Good — Inspiring Social Change Through the Power of VR” https://www.oculus.com/blog/introducing-vr-for-good-inspiring-social-change-through-the-power-of-vr/
VentureBeat: “10 ethical concerns that will shape the VR industry” https://venturebeat.com/2018/01/04/10-ethical-concerns-that-will-shape-the-vr-industry/
KQED: “Five Ethical Considerations For Using Virtual Reality with Children and Adolescents” https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/46103/five-ethical-considerations-for-using-virtual-reality-with-children-and-adolescents
“Ready Player One”: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1677720/?ref_=nv_sr_srsg_3
“Life 2.0": https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1518809/
“Second Life”: https://secondlife.com/