A Constitution for VR

Hyper-realism is near.

Almost a century since the first flight simulators, the artificial worlds of Virtual Reality pose a hydra-headed dilemma. Now is the time to consider some rules.

“VR is best when leveraging a paradox,” explains Professor Jeremy Bailenson, head of Stanford university’s VR Labs in California. He maps four categories of experience made possible in VR:

  1. The Impossible – Do It. Travel backwards in time, for example, or grow a third arm.
  2. The Counter-Productive – Test It. Stanford’s VR lab built an Ocean Acidification Experiment to create first-hand experience of climate change.
  3. The Rare, Unusual or Expensive – Try It. Tourists can visit simulated galaxies, while trauma patients convalesce faster with personally calibrated exercises.
  4. The Dangerous – De-Risk It. Trainee surgeons practice on simulated brain tissue, much like the first aircraft pilots in 1929.

In VR, natural disaster is free and no-one gets hurt. Because VR extends the limits of our perception, it can trigger cognitive reactions which will change behaviour. VR can teach motor skills, or empathy, or expose hiring managers to their own racial bias in interviews.

Take medicine – rare skills, expensive to learn and risky to practise. Trainee surgeons already hone their skills on simulated brain tissues. Patients recovering from (say) amputation can benefit from augmented reality to adjust to new prosthetic limbs.

Such advances are largely uncontroversial, as VR raises the game in learning and skills development. Social VR is more contested. It’s growing fast and powerful in ways which “can do worse things to you than advertising”.

At a meeting in Amsterdam, Bailenson urged supervision. He wants regulation of violence in online gaming, despite receiving thousands of hostile emails from gamers vexed by his support for what they perceive as a violation of their First Amendment rights under the US constitution.

Bailenson calls himself an optimist, but citing the example of Silicon Valley — where social media and internet giants operate a business model that is free to consumers — he cautions against an advertising-funded VR industry. Given its influence on behaviour, and addictive potential, a plan to develop more robust governance is overdue:

“VR is not great for things you wouldn’t do in the real world. It’s great for what you couldn’t do.”


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