Get real: where will virtual reality take us?

Sunday 23 October, 10.00 - 11.30 , Frobisher Auditorium 1 Technology and ethics


Listen to this session at the bottom of this page.

Virtual reality has hit the headlines in 2016 - from veteran broadcaster John Humphry taking to the stage with pop group Kasabian at the Brixton Academy while sitting in the BBC Today programme studio to doctors in Torbay gaining insight into what it’s like to be a patient. With the UK consumer launch of the Oculus Rift headset and lower-spec ‘immersion’ kits such as Google’s Cardboard making a mark, it seems as if VR is coming of age. The potential is immense, from training medics in surgery to designing transport systems. Uses of VR in the entertainment industry range from gaming to virtual reality cinemas – Europe’s first opened in Amsterdam in March – to putting sports fans right in the middle of the action, such as the NBA’s virtual reality streaming of basketball games. Investment in VR and augmented reality is reported to have reached $1billion in the first two months of 2016 alone.

So the virtual future is bright? Some are not so sure. A team of German researchers has outlined the potential psychological manipulation inherent in VR’s immersive experience as, well as the risks posed by violent pornography and the ability to ‘virtually’ torture other users. They called for a code of conduct that would place restrictions on the way avatars are used. Concerns have also been raised that VR cameras could be placed in war zones, giving viewers the ability to voyeuristically immerse themselves in violence. One of the biggest fears about VR is that it will sever real social connections. There are fears we will see a new and more entrenched generation of what are known in Japan as ‘Hikikomori’, people, particularly young men, who withdraw from real social interaction to indulge in fantasy games. Could the dystopian disconnection from material, social and political reality depicted in sci-fi tales like Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One and EM Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’ become a reality in our lifetime?

How do we begin to address both the huge potential and real fears about VR? Should codes of conduct and regulations already be in place? Are fears about the psychological impact of immersion borne out in the experience we have already of gaming and the Hikikomori? Or are these fears over-stated by conservative commentators? By trying to control and limit user and developer activity in VR do we risk curtailing the very creativity and imagination that could feedback into the ‘real’ world and have positive benefits?