The VR rulebook: how to create safe spaces in virtual worlds

TECH RADAR, MARCH 4, 2017

Over the past twelve months, we’ve witnessed real world examples of how virtual reality tech could soon be transforming the way we live, work and play for the better. Aside from the more obvious ways it could shake up gaming, sex and entertainment, we’ve also explored its potential to breathe new life into creative industries, ensure construction sites are safer, diagnose serious illnesses and so much more.

But considering the deeply immersive nature of virtual reality, it’s also raised a number of fears and concerns about the effect such a new of breed of tech –without social context, long-term research, or a set of ethical guidelines – could have on both a personal and societal level.

This is hardly surprising. Whenever a new technology or form of media enters mainstream consciousness, it’s often applauded for its potentially transformative effects whilst simultaneously being labelled dangerous at the same time.

Researchers have long been trying to understand why some technology slots seamlessly into our lives whilst others elicit responses that range from mild caution all the way to moral panic. Back in 2011, Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist who works for Intel, spoke to The Wall Street Journal about what she thinks it is that makes tech seem threatening and can make us collectively panic about it.

She suggested that for something to cause moral panic it needs to satisfy three rules. It needs to change our relationship to time, our relationship to space and our relationship to one another. She suggests any of these on their own can be unsettling, but by combining all three you can bring about panic and widespread concern.

Due to the immersive qualities of virtual reality and its power to transport people to different spaces, different places, distort senses and perceptions, it’s hardly surprising that it has become a breeding ground for concern.

But let’s not forget that we’ve seen many examples of this type of panic over the past century with people concerned about everything from telephones to social media being about to irreversibly change the way we live and communicate for the worse.

There’s often a certain amount of humor and eye-rolling attached to these concerns, as older generations today look back at the things that caused their elders a certain amount of panic in their day. This means that many of us shrug off the concerns of others, believing they’re not being forward-thinking enough and embracing innovation.

But not all panic is misguided. Some of the concerns about virtual reality currently hold a lot more weight than your Grandmother shouting at you for being on Facebook and not speaking to people face-to-face as much as she did at your age. This doesn’t mean we should do away with the tech or drum up fear about it. The key is understanding the potential problems and creating a sense of responsibility to ensure we have the best processes in place to either prevent them or deal with them.

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