Ethical Challenges in AR / VR

Augmented and virtual reality are part of an emerging and rapidly growing industry. With the evolution of new technology and its reach and accessibility, it’s important to consider the influence it has on societal norms, digital interactions, and human behavior.

Since the inception of virtual reality (VR), there has been much deliberation over whether its positive effects on society outweigh the negatives. With the power to go pretty much anywhere you want, and experience anything you want, you would expect that VR has the potential to be one of the best technological advancements in modern times. However, there are a few arguments against this, which we will discover later on.

Throughout this article, I will be diving into both the positives and negative effects of VR on society and what this means for our social interaction as a whole. After all, humans are incredibly social creatures (for the most part) and our civilisation thrives off other human interactions. But how does VR impact this?

Positive Effects on Society

Socialising without leaving the house

Of course, we all know that physical human interaction is the backbone of society and how we, as humans, stay mentally healthy. However, VR offers a great alternative to this. For those who are either unable to leave their house for various reasons, VR gives them a way to link with friends and family without being physically near them. This may be through gaming or other VR avenues.

We can take the latest COVID-19 pandemic for example. Many of us were quarantined for months on end, so just like Zoom and other video conferencing tools took off, VR was also able to engage people with human interaction. This is hugely beneficial for society as a whole because it means that even though we are not physically with others, we can still connect and hear other people’s voices. This can be an easy cure for loneliness or other mental health ailments.

Treating mental health

The issue of mental health is growing with each passing year, and with good reason. With 1 in 4 of us having to combat a mental health problem at one stage in our life, there is more demand for the right help and attention. This is where VR can help.

Mental health professionals often require extensive training for years on end, and waiting for the right medical professional can also take a while, but VR can bypass this. One of the best ways we are able to beat a mental health condition is through what is called ‘in-situ’ coaching. This is where we deal with our fear head-on and get put into situations that make us feel uncomfortable, with the aim of becoming more confident when facing that situation. With VR, we can be placed into these circumstances virtually and tackle them head-on.

Also, due to the fact that it is virtual, people will be more likely to enter situations that make them anxious as they know it is only a simulation. Furthermore, it is much more time and cost-effective to repeat the treatment if it becomes too much for the person. The virtual environment can be easily tapered back to suit.

Better education

If we go back before interactive smartboards and other technological advances in education, we learnt from textbooks (and often still do). However, it is known that that is not the most optimal way of learning. As humans, we like to learn through seeing and doing. VR checks both of those boxes.

Through the use of VR, we are able to jump into situations which would otherwise be impossible to re-enact in the classroom, such as visit Machu Picchu, perform surgery, or carry out a science experiment without the right equipment. Learning by performing is our best way of retaining information which is why VR is a great solution to improve education across the world.

Of course, we still have a long way to go before there are VR headsets in every classroom, but once there are, I believe that this can only benefit the human race and society as a whole. If you’re interested in more of this topic, here is a write-up of why VR will be the future of education.

Negative effects on Society

Addiction

Gaming addiction has always been a problem for society and a lot of people have had to deal with it over the last couple of decades. Now with the start of VR and environments becoming even more immersive, there is always an extra risk.

Due to the fact that VR is so immersive and the stimulus on the brain is heightened due to it being a simulation, the possibility of getting addicted does increase. If users do become addicted, this can become a major problem. Users can become isolated, negatively affecting their mental health and become dependent on the use of VR.

They can become antisocial and lose basic social skills, which can then form into social anxiety and other mental health problems. This is of course something we need to be wary of as a society.

Obviously, these are very extreme cases, and as long as VR usage is moderate and not abused, then the majority of people will be able to use VR without any problems.

Physical harm

There have been cases where users who have played on VR headsets for a prolonged period of time have experienced nausea or ‘cybersickness’. This is due to the fact that you may be moving in the simulation, but your body is not physically moving in the real world and your brain gets confused.

As well as nausea, users have been known to experience eye soreness. If we stare at a computer screen or TV for too long, our eyes start to strain, and this is exactly the same with VR. Ergonomic designers for VR headsets have yet to create a lens that mimics the wide-angle our eyes naturally have, so this can be a problem if used for long periods of time. The continual abuse of VR may cause long term impairment of vision, however, not much study surrounds this.

These factors are a relatively easy fix, just use VR for short periods of time and take plenty of breaks. Of course, these effects may not affect everyone and some may feel the toll heavier than others.

Potential for Deep Behavioral Manipulation

Whether physical or virtual, human behavior is situated and socially contextualized, and we are often unaware of the causal impact this fact has on learning mechanisms as well as on occurrent behavior. It is plausible to assume that this will be true of novel media environments as well. Importantly, unlike other forms of media, VR can create a situation in which the user’s entire environment is determined by the creators of the virtual world, including “social hallucinations” induced by advanced avatar technology. Unlike physical environments, virtual environments can be modified quickly and easily with the goal of influencing behavior.

Harassment

With the development of social media, we’ve faced new forms of harassment and racism in the digital environment. VR, especially social VR, will not only provide new ways to engage students and participate in virtual worlds but also give bad actors new opportunities to leverage the technology for their own agendas. This is particularly true in “walkthrough VR,” where users are free to move around and engage with others, seemingly free of the consequences in real life. Some platforms such as AltspaceVR provide a way of insulating oneself from unwanted advances by securing a safe space around an avatar (though that hardly solves the underlying issues). We need to recognize that harassment in VR can become pervasive and have a significant emotional impact on users.

For the moment, our current university and IT policies may be able to address cases that parallel harassment and racism in real life. But as VR evolves and virtual environments are populated with avatars that we “own,” our policies may be forced to deal with futuristic scenarios such as the appropriation of another’s avatar or transforming its appearance or actions in negative ways. In a future scenario, augmented and mixed reality (MR) may be able to associate digital information and objects with our physical bodies and identities without our knowledge or consent. These developments may lead to some students becoming reluctant to participate in advanced virtual environments and even asking to opt out. With VR, AR, and MR impacting human experience on the most fundamental levels, the issues will be both unanticipated and complex.

Student Data, Privacy, and Consent

As Gizmodo noted back in 2016 when the Oculus Rift headset was released, early adopters spotted troubling language in the terms of service and privacy policy. While Oculus did not claim ownership of user content, they retain the rights to “…use, copy, display, store, adapt, publicly perform and distribute…content for their services.” More invasive from an educational standpoint are statements in the privacy policy that allow the company to collect data on the device’s precise location and a user’s physical movements and dimensions.

While higher education institutions and technology vendors have often struggled with the extent of access to student data, VR, AR, and MR open an entirely new frontier of capturing data related to students’ physical movements and, eventually through biometrics, capturing their emotional states. As immersive technology evolves — especially with mind control interfaces — our physical location, gaze, and even our emotions may well be the new battleground for privacy.

Accessibility Issues

One of the primary challenges educators face in implementing virtual reality is the question of accessibility. While VR can increase understanding for people with disabilities, it has only recently begun to address how we accommodate users with different needs. Research is being done in this area that will bear fruit in the long term. For example, Microsoft recently developed a VR haptic controller for the visually impaired. Working with the HTC Vive headset, the “Canetroller” allows users to navigate a virtual space much as they would do in the real world .

Conclusion

When used correctly, VR can be an amazing tool for various things, such as education, socialising and treatment. However, it cannot be abused. This level of technology is fairly new and studies still need to be done to show the true impact addiction and the physical ailments caused by VR has on us in the long term.

If used in moderation, there is no reason that the benefits of VR can far outweigh the negatives, and this will only become more clear when we learn how to best make use of this wonderful technology.

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Abderrahmen Babchia

Abderrahmen Babchia

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