Virtual Reality and Ethical Challenges

There is a masterpiece of an anime by Yoshitoshi Abe called ‘Serial Experiments Lain’ (creator of the equally brilliant Haibane Renmei). The anime follows Lain Iwakura, a high school girl whose life is changed forever as she delves deeper into the mysteries of The Wired, the sum of all global communications which allows for unconscious communication between peoples and AI without physical interface. The distinction between reality and The Wired breaks down as consciousness migrates to The Wired and the line between what is real and what is virtual becomes meaningless.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Lain, and how far away we are from The Wired. Not that far, or at least, I think we’re close enough to start thinking seriously about it. Recently I wrote a paper that looked at the status of friendships mediated through MMO’s like WoW. I countered arguments that attempt to show that there is something lacking from these friendships, that there is something intrinsic to friendships mediated through the physical world that so called ‘virtual friendships’ can never achieve. A lesson that I tried to communicate through the paper is that in tackling these questions we have to latch onto normative claims, rather than appealing to limited technology. Would an argument against virtual friendship work if we could exist in The Wired? Or perhaps more familiarly, The Matrix? In these cases, arguments that try to attach something significant to physical existence run into difficulties.

But we can’t connect to The Wired, or plug into The Matrix. So why should we think about these things. Well, because staying true to our own preaching  we must not appeal to limited technology but instead, the limits of technology. Where is technology going? Where can it go? Is virtual reality something that is really possible?

Yes; In a word. The first steps into a virtual world are already being taken by the Oculus RIFT, the best and most exciting VR headset to date.

I’ve been following the RIFT for some time, but recently two particular external developments have highlighted to me just how much of a step forward in the virtual reality the RIFT actually is. First, an excellent introduction into what the RIFT is and what it’s like to put one on, can be found in this Kotaku article, which features a really interesting video showing people’s first time using the RIFT and their reactions. Here’s an extract from the article itself:

Strangely, it’s the moments when you’re dragged out of the experience that reminds you how potent the Oculus Rift can be.

I’m staring down at the ocean; I quickly shift round. In the real world I lift my hands, but I can’t see them. It’s instantly disorientating. Consciously I am aware that my own hands will not appear in this virtual simulation, but sub-consciously I expect them to exist in this space. That’s the dissonance right there.

Whoah. This is not real. It’s unreal.

But the dissonance only serves to highlight how ‘immersive’ the Oculus Rift experience is. In video game writing ‘immersive’ is a dead, lifeless word, but we must use it to describe this experience because no other word will suffice. ‘Immersive’: the adjective has a new weight and meaning through the existence of the Oculus Rift.

Here’s another example. As a test my friends placed a chair in real life relative to the point where a virtual chair existed in the virtual world. They placed an object on it and asked me to pick it up. As I leaned forward to pick it up I didn’t move forward in the virtual world like I did in the real world — obviously. The disorientation of these conflating worlds was significant, to the point where my brain tried to compensate. My brain tried to tell me that the chair was actually moving away from me.

Mind bending.

Here’s a simpler example: I’ve shown the Oculus Rift to a number of people now and every single person has attempted to walk forward in real life in order to move forward in the virtual world. And every single one felt disorientated, confused and weird when they continued to stand still.

What’s perhaps most exiting with the RIFT is the potential for development. In their video, the folks at Kotaku noted how bizarre it was to have such an immersive environment, which compelled the urge to physically walk, and the expectance of seeing one’s hands when raised to their face, but then to see no hands, and make no movement when walking. Yet these limitations are already being solved.

An independent studio is developing a circular treadmill, which allows users of the RIFT to walk and run around within their virtual environment. Another Indie developer, Kelly Weaver has demonstrated how we can develop our virtual presence while using the RIFT by tracking things like arm movement. Now we can physically walk in our virtual worlds and reach out to objects.

In short, the limitations to genuine virtual reality are slowly but surely disappearing. We are taking real steps towards fully interactive virtual worlds. Just think what that might mean for MMO’s. But also, think what it might mean for us, as humans. This is what has been making me think recently. As Lain interacts more with The Wired, she finds for herself and for others that the lines between her physical reality and virtual presence become increasingly difficult to distinguish. If, as I have argued, virtual friendships, or relationships more generally, can have the same status as their physical counterparts, is it then inevitable that we will will become hopelessly lost in the virtual worlds we create for ourselves. Shouldn’t we be aware of this risk and how to cope with it?

I think we should.

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