VR Research Raises Troubling Questions

SACRAMENTO REGION, CA (MPG)  |  By Noah Howard

SACRAMENTO REGION, CA (MPG) - “This was our rig ten years ago,” said the research technician, nonchalantly slapping a clunky headset that resembles a prop from The Matrix into the hands of a surprised student. “It cost forty thousand dollars,” he continued, as students passed the metallic monstrosity from hand to hand, “And now we use a consumer headset that costs five hundred and does the same thing better.”

I was visiting Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, a state-of-the-art fully-immersive room that, at its core, runs off of an everyday computer and an HTC Vive virtual reality (VR) headset. I was being given a sneak peek behind the lab’s research, which not only reaffirms the mind-bending illusions of VR, but explores its powerful effects on human behavior. Subjects who were made to cut down a virtual tree were more likely to conserve paper, those who were immersed in a dying coral reef were more likely to retain information about ocean acidification, and people who were given superpowers and told to save a digital child were more likely to come to a real person’s aid in the aftermath of the virtual experience.

The evidence seems clear: VR is possibly the most influential artistic medium currently in existence because of its innate ability to quickly change how people think and behave. Right now most of the research explores the potential benefits of such influence, increases in charitable donations, environmental awareness, and general good citizenship, but as one fellow student of mine pointed out, couldn’t it just as easily be used for ill?

It’s a question that the research is yet to adequately explore; considering there is already some observed correlation between violent video games and short-term increases in aggression, how might the average person react to a fully immersive virtual experience?

The researcher remarked that, without the fourth wall of a single screen, he found violent VR experiences extremely unpleasant; after all, violence in real life is horrific far more often than it is fun. Nevertheless, one person’s experience can’t outweigh the fact that a definite market for extremely violent and brutal VR experiences will develop as the more people get their hands on VR technology.

Right now, most popular VR experiences dodge this problem by seriously pulling their punches. Few VR games or experiences are realistically violent, and the ones that are refrain from being as “in your face” as they obviously could have been. But the question remains on whether the moral onus on the consumers not to be influenced by violent VR, or on VR content creators to not make it in the first place.

Despite its potential problems, our first instinct should be to place the responsibility on the consumers, not on the creators, as we do with every other art form. Most headsets come with a warning that VR should not be used by children under 12, and if those warnings are kept as prominent as they are today, we can hopefully restrict the VR audience largely to people who are capable of telling truth from fiction and won’t take VR’s potential negative effects to heart. Nevertheless, as this powerful new medium continues to emerge the question of how it could damage us is arguably more important than the exploring possible benefits. If finding research subjects proves problematic, we can turn once again to Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. College students are always looking for a thrill, and VR could prove to be the adventure of a lifetime.