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Study Highlights the Ethical Issues of Virtual and Augmented Reality

Virtual reality research dates back to the 1980s, but given the availability of good quality to the general public, it can soon turn out to be a commercial consumer product.

Researchers urge for more scientific research that could form the basis of a regulatory regime such as there is for cinema. Image Credit: University of Barcelona.

However, scientific data about the impacts of virtual reality in the long run is almost non-existent, and any oversight relating to the content is also unavailable.

An international research team, which also included Mel Slater, director of Event Lab in the Faculty of Psychology of the University of Barcelona, has now published a new study in the journal, Frontiers in Virtual Reality, speculating on the possible ethical issues of the large-scale spread of ultrarealistic virtual and augmented reality.

As these technologies have become increasingly realistic, scientists have cautioned about the dangers that are likely to emerge and have called for new studies to deal with these situations.

Other study participants included representatives from leading institutions and companies like the University College London, Digital Catapult, BBC R&D, NESTA, Facebook London, Dimension /Hammerhead VR, Jigsaw -part of Google-, Microsoft Research, and Magic Leap.

Potential Negative Effects of Virtual or Augmented Reality Have not Been Explored

More than four decades ago, virtual reality began in a form that people would relate today— computer graphics generated images, head tracking, and a stereo head-mounted display.

In spite of the various ups and downs faced during the advancement of the technology, a significant number of studies have been conducted over a wide range of applications in the last 25 years—from business to medicine, from travel to sports, and from industry to psychotherapy.

But it is highly possible that the negative impacts of these technologies have not been investigated thoroughly, particularly when extremely high-quality behavioral and visual realism of virtual humans is turning out to be increasingly viable in the coming days. Very soon, elements, as well as experiences in augmented or virtual reality, may become vague from reality.

For example, a normal computer game may be violent, but it is violence depicted through a screen, involving tiny characters. In VR you are part of the scenario, everything happening is around you, the characters are life-sized, they can look you in the eye. This is a qualitatively different type of experience compared to video games or movies.

Mel Slater, Director of Event Lab, Faculty of Psychology, University of Barcelona

Slater is also a member of the Institute of Neurosciences at the University of Barcelona.

Mel Slater continued, “Virtual Reality has been used almost exclusively for the good, mostly focused on psychotherapy, but like any technology, it can be used for good or evil. In order to prevent its use for evil we need better scientific understanding, and therefore research into its effects.”

Limits Between Reality and Virtual Experiences

To ponder about the imminent risks of augmented and virtual reality, the research team set out to factor in the potential worst-case scenarios as well as the potential areas of research to counter these risks. The researchers predominantly focused on issues that may emerge, as XR becomes increasingly realistic.

With virtual reality becoming more real, individuals may find it hard to differentiate reality from virtual reality. For instance, recalling the virtual events as if they had been true, and failing to differentiate over time events that actually occurred and those that occurred in virtual reality.

The scientists also emphasized that an ultrarealistic experience poses another possible concern: the mental consequences and after-effects of utilizing virtual reality—for instance, in extreme violent games—and of the real-world change from virtual reality are not exactly known.

After an intense and emotional experience in virtual reality, you take the headset off, and you are suddenly in the very different real world. We are not good at rapid adjustment of behavior and emotion regulation.

Mel Slater, Director of Event Lab, Faculty of Psychology, University of Barcelona

Slater continued, “Re-entry to the real world, especially after repeated exposure to virtual reality, might lead to disturbances of various types: cognitive (did something happen in XR or in real life?), emotional (cause of emotions is not real, for example your avatar was insulted by a fictional virtual character), and behavioral: for example, actions accepted in XR may not be socially accepted in the real world).”

The study also highlighted social isolation as another problem. “It is possible that some people may use XR to such an extent that they lose social face-to-face contact with other people so that people withdraw from society,” added Mel Slater.

The researchers also warned against more problems like fake news, data privacy, and the risks of identity impersonation.

People (for example, politicians) could be shown to carry out actions in virtual reality that they never did in reality. Although the same is true with just video, in virtual reality it is more powerful because it seems to happen life-sized in the same space in which you are located. It happens in front of you, not through a screen,” Slater added.

A Regulatory Regime Similar to Cinema

Taking these ethical challenges into consideration, the scientists emphasized that there is actually no information that can help in dealing with these problems. Therefore, apart from the possible issues, a few crucial research queries were illustrated in the article, for example, if individuals will continue to differentiate between real and virtual events, what will be the long-term impact of using XR, and whether the XR experiences could be used to exploit memory.

It is especially important to make the creators of virtual and augmented reality applications aware of these possible dangers. However, this must be based on scientific study rather than opinion, so an urgent consideration is the funding of interdisciplinary research to address these and other issues. The most important is scientific research that could form the basis of a regulatory regime such as there is for cinema, with classifications of content by age and other conditions.

Mel Slater, Director of Event Lab, Faculty of Psychology, University of Barcelona

A Permanent Working Group

Following this study, the researchers will continue with routine meetings and discussion. “We plan to hold a one-day Workshop for Industry where we present these issues in a public forum, and form a more permanent working group from this to advise industry, government and international bodies,” Slater concluded.


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