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Ethics in virtual and augmented reality in the 2020s

ethics in virtual and augmented reality in the 2020s

Like veins in rocks, ethics runs through everything we do in technology. It depends on how we use it, but it can still be used for evil as much as good. Sometimes it is a hard impact. Facebook allows microtargeting which could radicalise people, spurring them towards violence and terrorism. Or it is a more soft, like Instagram giving a generation of young people image problems as they compare themselves to unattainable standards. A fundamental ethical framework on how we use tools can save and improve lives. The same goes for immersive technologies like AR and VR, where communicating in virtual worlds could have drastic effects on people and societies. 

Take mobile phones. Just a few decades ago, people planned to meet friends, relying on being prompt without ways to communicate. Then friends invest time in each other without distractions, with a lot of meaning as it was rarer to speak. And news came mainly from the well-funded print houses of Fleet Street, with the personnel and time to pursue investigative news stories to inform their readers. 

That has changed. Friends became laxer with timings, flinging a message if they are late. Once together, friends stick to their phones in fear of missing something important. And journalism? Struggling, as online platforms enabled a deluge of free ways to read the news of varying quality, hitting larger companies hard who can’t pursue the projects they want. 

None of this is necessarily bad. It is beautiful to connect with friends thousands of miles away or be able to access the world’s knowledge in your hand (if you can read through the torrent of noise). But these changes happened, and their impact changed the way we communicate around the world. Predicting these changes, and planning accordingly, is essential. 

Many people think this is underexplored, a desert of information compared to the bounty of experiences already available on platforms. In reality, a fair few professors stepped forward to investigate ethics in immersive media. Their conclusions could reveal a very different society in the future, changed as much as when the mobile phone entered the mainstream. 

Environment design and virtual reality

Environment shapes people. Place one person in a war-torn country, and another in a luxury lifestyle. Both will have different views of what is right and wrong, formed by their experiences. 

The same goes for virtual reality. Companies create new environments to train workers the right process relevant to their job roles. Immerse, a UK-based enterprise company, helped recreate an entire submarine, to guide employees around the sophisticated machinery of the machine. Submersing them in the environment helps them helps to embed the learning in their minds, far better than reading from a manual or an instructor who has to describe the surroundings. 

People can use technology for good too. VR can be an empathy machine, bringing people together and informing them of new concepts and, eventually, converting them. In one study, it helps to identify with different people around the world (One). 

But these simulated environments can harm users too. Erick Jose Ramirez notes that virtual spaces let neuroscience researchers look beyond the ethical issues of placing people in real-life hazardous areas. While they cannot put them in dangerous places (psychologically speaking), why not a virtual one instead? Surely it bypasses any health issues? (Two)

Inflicting pain in a simulated environment

Ramirez disagrees, and it deserves greater scrutiny. These virtual environments can hurt people as much as the real experiment, only not as well regulated. 

Ramirez cited the Milgram Shock Experiment to support his point. For those unfamiliar, it tests the obedience of people to follow orders despite hearing the pain of others. Every time they are told to press the button, they hear a scream of pain. They are said to touch it again, and again, and again, to see how far they would go. The purpose was to see how long people would follow orders that inflict harm, related to the atrocities inflicted by service people during World War Two. 

In a later paper, Mel Slater argued that a simulated environment would have the same negative ramifications on the user psychologically, even if they performed in a virtual space (Three). Though the participants are fake, the users learn that they are capable of harm; an ethical issue raised regardless of the realism of the experiment. 

With the increased realism of today’s VR, Ramirez argues that VR needs more regulation for experiments. Like a loophole in a legal battle, people could use the technology to run tests which harm users, regardless of their realism. 

Currently, no such guidelines exist. So Ramirez proposed The Equivalence Principle: “If it would be wrong to subject a person… then it would be wrong to subject a person to a virtually-real analog of that experience. As a simulation’s likelihood of inducing virtually-real experiences in its subject increases, so too should the justification for the experimental protocol.”

Ramirez is right to call out that VR should not be used to bypass specific laws and ethics of experimentation. Over the next decade, we may see more and more use cases of VR putting users under undue stress, which could compromise their psychology and hurt them. Bodies should put simulations under greater scrutiny.

Immersive journalism and ethics 

These same concerns arise in journalism, as companies explore using VR for their reporting (Four). Journalism raises the same issues; if we misuse VR, then it could harm groups as it is so powerful and immersive. The consensus was that journalists should uphold the same Press Ethics guidelines they already use in print. A small but necessary step to ensure the high quality of journalism.

The hope is that, as VR becomes more ubiquitous, there will be more demand for 360 storytelling. When that happens, reporters can deliver compelling stories, similar to what the New York Times and the Guardian are currently doing. 

The overall theme of both experimentation and journalism is reporters should follow the rules and provide compelling stories. The trouble is, it can be used to abuse as well. 

Social interactions and AR glasses

One last area I want to explore is the social implications of AR glasses. Through the 2020s, we should expect to see AR glasses to enter, and probably rupture, the market. As they become a fashion accessory, more and more people will be wearing glasses and communicating with one another. 

What is unknown is the changes in socialising that would occur, similar to how the ubiquity of mobile phones changed us over the last few decades. 

In theory, it would not change much. Instead of glancing under the table, people could look forwards and scan their messages on their lenses, scrolling with simple inputs with the mind. Less antisocial than looking away fro ma friend mid-conversation, though the brain would be focusing on other matters regardless. 

But one potential issue is being always connected to the virtual world. Mobile phones can be restricted by turning them off and putting them in your pocket and disconnect. The mobile phone is separate from the person. For many, the detox is bliss. But glasses-wearers are reliant on them to see, so they would continuously be, quite literally, on their face. How can people cope with constant connectivity, as their real and virtual world merges for all hours of their day? How would that change a person and their grip on reality?

Violent actions in VR or AR is also worthy of exploration as well. Researchers have confirmed that there is not a link between video game violence and real-life violence. But will VR have a greater impact, by placing people in virtual environments to kill? TOm Pascoe, an AR developer, agrees that this is important to follow as well, highlighting the surge of violent YouTube videos where people enjoy killing online. 

Privacy of immersive data

Then there is the security of data, according to Damien Mason at ProPrivacy. Damien gives his thoughts: 

“Cameras and even microphones are used throughout both technologies, helping virtual reality headsets to gauge distance and allowing augmented reality programs to superimpose digital objects into the real world. 

“Offline, this might not be a problem. But since users are almost always connected to the internet, it’s questionable just how much of this data is being collected by respective companies. 

“Since companies realise that the average person doesn’t read terms and conditions, the right to collect the location you live in, the things you say to other players, the food you eat and many more bits of information you wouldn’t begin to consider is usually buried deep within privacy policies, but it’s a genuine possibility. European law such as the General Data Protection Regulation has tried to curb shady practices within the region and there are respectable developers that only collect the data necessary to run their software, but it’s always worth keeping an eye out for the majority that still takes whatever they can get.”

Ethics of VR and AR in the 2020s 

Based on these arguments, we should focus on the following principles for ethics in VR and AR. These are deliberately open-ended, to develop as we develop the technology further: 

1) Hold virtual spaces to the same standards as real ones 

Both journalists and neuroscientists agree that the same rules of real-life should apply to VR. VR has the power to change, influence, or hurt participants if misused, and should be regulated to guidelines as much as possible. While VR can change people, such as with empathy, its capacity for harm is apparent. 

2) Differentiate between thrill and harm

Horror VR games can give us a thrill, as they force us to confront fears. But a line should be drawn between horror and deliberate harm; a path that is difficult to draw but is still present. 

3) Be aware of how social interaction will change as AR glasses arrive

While not necessarily bad, the arrival of AR glasses will likely change how we socialise with one another in the same way that mobile phones have. We are beginning to understand how mobile phones have changed us today; how will glasses do the same in a few decades? 

The topic warrants more discussion, and more shall come soon.

(One): Lisa Nakamura. 2019. Virtual Reality and the Feeling of Virtue: Women of Color Narrators, Enforced Hospitality, and the Leveraging of Empathy. In Proceedings of the 2019 on Designing Interactive Systems Conference (DIS ’19). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 3-3. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1145/3322276.3325420

(Two): Erick Jose Ramirez (2019) Ecological and ethical issues in virtual reality research: A call for increased scrutiny, Philosophical Psychology, 32:2, 211-233, DOI: 10.1080/09515089.2018.1532073

(Three): Slater M, Antley A, Davison A, Swapp D, Guger C, et al. (2006) A Virtual Reprise of the Stanley Milgram Obedience Experiments. PLOS ONE 1(1): e39. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0000039

(Four): More details on this can be found here:  https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frobt.2019.00028/full