By no means a comprehensive list, we take a quick look at the challenges and concerns around virtual reality – focusing it on the concerns for our health, the potential security issues, and the ethical implications, mainly based on our subsequent behaviour in the real world.
Health Concerns and Virtual Reality
There is indeed an evidence of “cyber-sickness” caused by the use of virtual reality devices. Manufacturers warn of many physical short-term side effects, and there is no evidence yet of the long-term effects. But, what about the impact on our brains and our behaviour?
Physical Health Concerns
Using a virtual reality headset or device has been reported to make the user feel a little…off colour! Headaches, queasiness and blurred vision, either alone or in combination seem to be common side effects of the experience. There are no long-term reports yet or studies, it’s assumed the effects are a very short term, but does anyone really know?
The virtual reality industry is aware of the lack of information, and the reports of effects. Device makers are making sure they limit their liability with plenty of warnings. Oculus Rift’s health and safety documentation lists 18 potential side effects from loss of awareness, twitching, impaired coordination and excessive sweating right through to seizures. They recommend a 15-minute break for every 30 minutes of use, even if you are not experiencing any detrimental effects. But, who is going to follow that advice? Really?
It’s been officially termed “virtual-reality sickness” or “cybersickness” and is similar to motion sickness. It’s thought that the cause of cybersickness is a conflict within the brain –
possibility to disconnect between our eyes and ears telling us we are moving, but the inner ear does not detect the motion.
An area in our brains called the “area postrema” senses the conflict, assumes you are hallucinating after ingesting a toxin, and tells your body to try and eject the substance. It’s a phenomenon that could affect children between two and 12 years old more than adults.
Some virtual reality unit manufacturers advise caution, others for their units only to be used by ages 13 and over. Technological improvements seem to be limiting the problem, again, there is limited research available.
Research by UCLA California with rats suggests that only half the neurons in the hippocampus fire in virtual reality when compared with reality. They have no idea yet of the implications, but the hippocampus is vital for spatial awareness, learning and memory.
Mental Health Concerns
There is some evidence that virtual reality can change how people think and behave in the real world, after “living” in such realistic virtual worlds. We touch more on this under ethics. Social implications too may result in changes to our mental state.
It’s proven that gamers can experience isolation, leading to depression, anxiety, and difficulties coping with the real world. If virtual reality becomes our ideal perfect world, and more and more real, who wouldn’t feel a reluctance to return to a duller reality?
Privacy and Security and Virtual Reality
Is virtual reality private?
The privacy policies of every big virtual reality brand are very similar. A few things are obvious; they will:
- Collect location-based information to provide language availability and relevant software upgrades
- Share statistical data with third parties, generally not specific or personal data
- Record your IP address, your browser and device information
- Use the information they collect to guide their marketing towards you
- Share information with their affiliate partners
- Never guarantee your data is completely safe
- Warn you that a record of social communication is stored
Though all can be concerning, as any security breach can reveal your data. And, you have to rely on the cybersecurity of both these companies and their affiliates.
The most concerning implications to your privacy are the latter two. Virtual reality companies just won’t guarantee your data is safe. Most of them use servers all around the world to transmit and store data. Privacy laws vary from country to country and are not always enforced as we might expect.
The last point on our list, the storing of your communication, messages between users are saved in a temporary cache; and there is a more permanent trail of the occurrence of interactions between users. Exactly how much of your communication and indeed gameplay, is stored, and for how long is best described as vague.
We know from criminal investigations, experts really can access a tremendous amount of information when they need to.
The matter of privacy leads us into the ethics debate. A question that’s not one to discuss in detail here – If we are not doing anything illegal, what does it matter if our data can be accessed?
There are two further questions here, why should anyone be able to pry into our lives, no matter how innocent? Then, the issue of who is accessing our information?
“information about your physical movements and dimensions when you use a virtual reality headset”
Cybersecurity and Virtual Reality
So far there have been no significant security breaches or hacks that can be attributed to virtual reality. However, there is concern that security is not being addressed in the same way that cybersecurity for the internet, for example, is. A determined party can hack any data that is stored or transferred.
A secondary element of security is what data can be accessed through the headsets themselves if the headset was stolen. The same security measures which are applied to laptops, desktops and devices are not being used with headsets yet. Potential solutions for headset security are biometric tracking and the authentication of the end user.
Ethical Concerns and Virtual Reality
There are some challenges and concerns around virtual reality and the ethical implications of the technology and the industry.
As with the gaming industry, there is an apprehension about desensitisation to violence or murder. It’s noted that gamers who play role play, or war games, which appear to be very real, begin to lose their sensitivity or empathy to actual world violence or murder.
Apart from being a great source of entertainment, virtual reality provides almost real-world experiences. Users can enter worlds where they can be whoever they want to be and have those around them behave how they want them to. This can be highly addictive, particularly for those who may prefer their virtual reality lives to their own.
Virtual reality can also be a medium to interact with other individuals too, anywhere in the world – which may increase its attractiveness. Those who spend too much time in virtual reality could do so at the detriment to their real lives.
There are highly controversial ethical discussions taking place regarding virtual criminality. As virtual reality develops what happens if a user experiences a crime, resulting in mental or even physical injury or distress? Is a perpetrator punished in the same way as in the real world?
Teledildonic Sex and Relationships
Virtual reality is, of course, a domain where pornography is present. Delivering a next to real sexual experience is a goal of companies in the industry. Virtual reality devices leap here with many becoming available which enhance the virtual experience.
Teledildonic sex is a growing market. Individuals who live thousands of miles from each other can interact in virtual reality. The ethical considerations are whether these experiences are healthy ones, and where is the line for fidelity in the real world? Is virtual sex cheating?
One thing is for sure; virtual reality is only going to get more and more real. The challenges and concerns around virtual reality we identified here will continue. It’s rare that any new technology is introduced without causing anxiety, virtual reality has more than its fair share, and it will be interesting to see how the industry manages them.