“Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her and to wonder what was going to happen next.” — Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
As the virtual reality headset covered my eyes, it became apparent that I hadn’t been prepared for what I was about to see. Like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, I was powerless and at the mercy of technology.
The programmers and designers could simulate anything they want in virtual reality. The simulations themselves are dazzling, but it’s the motives behind virtual reality that are worth exploring more. If the business of public relations is, as the CIPR puts it, “… the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour.”, then clearly it’s the potential for virtual reality to influence behaviours that matters.
In 2011 Stanford researchers began exploring the potential of VR to influence behaviours by getting volunteers to cut down trees; will this influence real world recycling behaviours? They found there was an impact on participant behaviours. We’re not too far away from the PR industry finding a way to give people experiences to influence behaviours — the possibilities are endless.
Or are they? As virtual reality technology develops, inevitably a slew of ethical questions are beginning to be raised. The first one is about VR studios acting responsibly and ensuring the experiences being offered to people are safe.
For example, one of my earliest VR experiences was a basic 360 video example of a man skydiving (we could hardly call this VR today, it’s got nothing on Oculus Rift). It was breath-taking, capturing a man’s initial hesitation before the leap, and the 13,000ft fall. The tourist board that showed me this were proud, obviously hoping that this innovative piece of marketing would inform a decision to book tickets to their destination.
However, it did the precise opposite! Even though this was a rough visual simulation, it still didn’t distract from the fact I don’t like heights and to the studio’s obliviousness, I could have had a traumatic experience sky diving in the past. It’s therefore hardly responsible to make me relive these memories in the name of marketing. It also made me feel dizzy, something I still find with modern VR technology.
It’s not too difficult to comprehend other examples where this could happen; first person shooters for post-traumatic stress victims, simulating a night club for people managing anxiety; in fact, any simulated scenario has the potential to not just influence behaviours, but cause people to relive negative experiences.
Of course, one of the biggest growth areas for VR is in the adult entertainment industry, which is already responsible for pitching unrealistic expectations of sex to teenagers (and frankly children). Generally VR offers an enhancement of the content we’re producing today, metaphorically plugging directly into our mind as an experience. Clearly offering a slew of positives and negatives.
Writing for New Scientist, Thomas Metzinger is a Philosopher at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany stated,
“There may be a risk of depersonalisation, where after an extended immersion in a virtual environment, your physical body may seem unreal to you. Fully immersive experiences have a bigger and more lasting impact on people’s behaviour and psychology… There may be a tiny percentage of the population that has a certain psychiatric vulnerability such that binging on VR may result in a prolonged psychotic episode. One can only speculate.”
In the same article he talks about the dangers of companies creating environments to influence our behaviours. This part isn’t new, it happens in every part of marketing and advertising, but VR isn’t regulated in the same way… yet. When will the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) reveal its requirements for VR? When will the PRCA have to specifically write guidelines on responsible virtual experiences as part of a member’s Professional Charter and Codes of Conduct?
VR leaves a number of ethical questions for industries to answer and over the next couple of years we’ll begin to see answers, probably triggered by negative events first. My advice, before you’re given a VR experience, is to ask the studio what is being simulated and what the expected behavioural outcome should be.
If you’re the one planning the experience, make sure it’s responsible first, innovative second.