Today, I’m going to be talking about Virtual Reality (VR) and the ethics of technology. I am not an expert on the topic, so by no means should this be accepted as facts. Additionally, I can’t go into these points with as much depth as they deserve, so think of this more as a springboard into deeper discussions. More than anything, I want to use this discussion to frame my research goals and what I personally believe is important for the world of VR. And finally, if you read my last post, you’ll know that I’m not too picky on my terms. So, when I say VR, I really mean anything in the world of Extended Reality (Augmented, Virtual and Mixed Reality). With that out of the way, let’s get to it!
Every now and then, when I talk to people about my research focus in VR, I hear the following question:
“Have you seen that one Black Mirror episode where-”
And then some sort of dismal dystopia where VR is the cause is explained to me. They will then usually ask if I am worried about it and if VR is actually a good technology to develop. If you haven’t seen Black Mirror, all you need to know is that it provokes ethical questions about various technologies, particularly ones we like to study here at the Future Reality Lab. It asks “what are the societal dangers of <some technology>?”
I think this is a great question to ask. It is a good thing that people are cautious about technology. In general, I believe there isn’t such thing as an “evil technology,” but for almost any technology, there are good and bad applications for it.
Let’s take, for example, the Internet. I am a huge fan of it. Most of the people I know would agree that the world is a better place with the Internet. But what does the Internet sound like if you only examine the negative use cases? In just the past couple years, we have had major news stories of it being used for widespread political manipulation, identity theft, privacy breaches, and that’s just skimming the surface! If you went back in time three decades and told people that this is what the Internet would give us, it would be terrifying for those people to watch it come into existence!
But, as I said, I like the Internet. It’s done a great amount of wonderful things for me and, I believe, for society. So what prevents me from outright declaring it as a horrible technology? To me, it’s about the positives it brings to the world, and how it brings about those positives. In particular, I think the Internet is good because of three things:
- Anyone with access can create or consume large amounts of content
- It has positively impacted the world of education and availability of information
- It is generally cheap and easy to access, and has widespread use
To me, this is a great set of attributes that can make a technology good. I could write a lot about why I like these traits in particular in the context of the Internet, but this is not a blog about the Internet. This is a blog about Virtual Reality! So let’s talk about current VR, and if it meets these above conditions.
1.) Anyone with access can create or consume large amounts of content.
I believe this is true of current VR. I can first-hand say that it took me very little time to translate my knowledge of computer graphics programming into VR-ready experiences. Game engines like Unity and Unreal have streamlined that sort of development, making it easy for anyone, even non-programmers, to produce content. In general, while VR development isn’t as streamlined as posting a written blog, there are many readily available tools for doing so, and I believe those tools will only improve over time.
Overall, I give VR a solid pass for the accessibility aspect.
2.) It has positively impacted the world of education and availability of information.
Currently, I believe VR is not meeting my expectations for education. To me, education is one of the most important things we have, and I think VR has limitless potential to improve how we learn and access information. I frequently see projects that give me glimpses into that limitless potential: a medical center using VR to simulate surgeries, artists creating beautiful masterpieces that could not be created in any other medium, and if you’re a frequent reader of this blog, you are probably aware of Chalktalk, an educational tool created here in our lab.
However, we just aren’t there yet. Part of the problem is the hardware isn’t yet mature enough to support these applications on a public scale, part of the problem is that there hasn’t been enough time to develop these great educational tools. The good news is both of those can be solved over time. We, as VR developers, just need to make sure that we keep the ship steered in the right direction.
3.) It is generally cheap and easy to access, and has widespread use
This is probably VR’s biggest failing right now. On top of having fairly niche applications, the cheapest standalone device currently is $200. Which, let me say, is very impressive given that one year ago, you would have needed at least $800 in hardware for even the cheaper phone-based VR setups. This demonstrates a positive trend that will make VR affordable to a much larger user base than it currently is.
The main problem here is that the current costs bias the market of who is using the devices, and therefore influences the applications we create. If we only design applications with users in mind that can afford an expensive luxury device, then our applications may not suit the vast majority of people once the hardware becomes affordable. It is important that we keep this in mind as we develop new VR applications, or else VR will remain a niche technology.
We started by asking ourselves the question: “will the societal benefits of VR outweigh the negative consequences?” Then, we developed a few examples of what can make a technology good, and saw how VR matched up for those criteria. In my opinion, VR is showing a positive trend towards fulfilling those criteria, but we can’t yet assume that it will continue that way. Just as easily, I can see VR stagnating into a world of monopolized content that betters only a small niche of our population and detriments the rest. And that’s where we get into Black Mirror territory.
As someone who focuses in VR research and development, I use these criteria to motivate my work every day. I don’t think this is a comprehensive list, but I think it’s a good starting point. I believe that comments are now available on the blog, so if you think there are different or more goals we should pursue to create the best future reality, feel free to comment below!