A life-enhancing tool or a brain bashing device?

March 10, 1995

Huw Jones examines the possible risks of virtual reality. New uses of virtual reality are reported almost daily. With prices falling, VR systems could become as ubiquitous as the personal computer. Howard Rheingold learned from VPL Research Inc that "VR is . . . as unlimited and harmless as a dream". VPL's founder Jaron Lanier is quoted as saying that in VR, "good energy becomes creatively beautiful, bad energy is channelled harmlessly".

Others are sceptical, particularly as similar claims were made for tobacco, motor cars, DDT and nuclear power. Supporters enthuse over William Gibson's notion of cyberspace, but Gibson states that such people "miss several layers of irony" in his novels.

In the context of disquiet about VR, it is sensible to consider its potential to change individuals and society, in physical and psychological senses, in the short and long term.

Fears of disease transmission through multiple use of arcade game headsets have subsided, but guarantees that headsets survive a two metre drop beg the question of how often users fall over. Vertigo, nausea, palpitations, eye-strain and dizziness are listed as symptoms when visual and motion cues are mismatched. Clare Regan of the Army Personnel Research Establishment, Farnborough reports feelings of malaise in 61 per cent of users, corresponding to studies cited by Roy Kalawsky in The Science of Virtual Reality and Virtual Environments. Only one user in a thousand suffers so severely as to vomit.

Temporal and spatial imprecision of stereoscopic displays and incorrect fitting may cause short-term symptoms. Each eye focuses on a near screen, but separation cues suggest objects at greater distances. Adjustable headsets, such as Virtuality's Visette 2, ensure that separation between viewers' eyes and displays are matched, and improvements in system speed and display precision will ameliorate some of these effects. But a proposal to use direct retinal scanning by laser to create high-quality images has raised fears of possible health hazards.

Apparent clusters of illness close to high-tension power cables are under investigation and a press story has reported brain tumours in frequent users of radio phones. VR users need to be reassured that there is no hazard from long term exposure to electrical and magnetic fields. Radiation from VDUs and ozone from laser printers have caused concern and the development of X-rays is a salutary tale. VR developers should not be complacent on this issue.

Excessive use of computer games was cited by the British Heart Foundation in a January 1994 campaign as a potential cause of illness. Inactivity and raised adrenalin are factors in obesity and high cholesterol counts. VR has potential for benefit by making strenuous activity part of the interaction process, for example through static running or cycling. "exercise VR" may replace the "exercise video", at the risk of repetitive strain injury.

Addiction afflicts gamblers, hackers and computer game fans. A compulsive hacker was reported in the Guardian to be obsessed by "a mental disorder, a clinical state driven by an inner force in the same vein as gamblers or alcoholics". The immersive nature of VR systems makes them potentially more addictive than the simple Pounds 200 microcomputer that induced this condition.

Young people at risk, often ignored by adult society, have a sense of place within immersive games, but they still have to spend some time in real society. The process of "coming down" out of a game into real interpersonal relations could lead to stress for the games addict and his or her real life contacts.

The sense of isolation may be attractive to some, but is potentially damaging to society. Peter Ackroyd describes a 1930s child's first trip in a motor car: "I . . . watched the familiar houses and the familiar shops passing by; and yet they were no longer recognisable. I had lost all connection with them . . . they had become opaque objects in an alien landscape."

Michael Frayn, in A Very Private Life, created a vision of a society enjoyed by the well off "inside classes", who live in isolation within sensually rich environments. "The public freedom of one man must necessarily impinge upon the public freedom of others; so that public freedoms inevitably limit and destroy each other. But our modern private freedoms impinge upon no one and nothing. And no one and nothing can impinge upon them." As with Gibson, Frayn's "several layers of irony" should not be overlooked.

VR supported tele-conferencing and remote collaboration technologies put us close to Frayn's scenario. We already have virtual theatres and concert halls; do we really want virtual pubs and holiday resorts? Face-to-face contact is important in forming personal relationships. If VR encourages disembodied (even "false embodied") communications, generations of experience of trust may be undermined, and concern for others could become an outmoded notion.

Dehumanisation has already made war more palatable, as admitted by General Norman Schwarzkopf in discussing the Gulf War: "This world in which people are virtual has given us the myth of a 'clean war' and of 'surgical strikes'. The enemy is no longer killed in a bloodbath. The operation takes place on a sterile surface."

The potentially harmful effects of VR in treatment of mental disorders and the issue of virtual sex have been widely discussed, so are only mentioned in passing here. Howard Rheingold does, however, raise some important general questions when he discusses teledildonics in his book Virtual Reality: "Where does identity lie? What new meanings will "intimacy" and "morality" accrete?" The development of VR systems and applications will continue and there will be considerable benefit. This does not mean that we should accept VR without question. In a later article, Rheingold says that VR "has the potential to become a life-enhancing tool . . . a liberating force for good minds trapped in dysfunctional bodies", but also "a life-sapping weapon, a dangerous brainwashing device, a form of imprisonment-through-illusion". He concludes: "It is important that people learn to talk more intelligently about a future in which it might be possible to manufacture any conceivable experience." Let us hope that no developer of VR systems will need to repeat Robert Wilson's statement on the development of the atomic bomb, "It's a terrible thing that we made."

Huw Jones is reader in computer graphics at the Centre for Electronic Arts, Middlesex University and is co-editor (with Mike Gigante and Rae Earnshaw) of Virtual Reality Systems (Academic Press, 1993) and the forthcoming Virtual Reality and its Applications (with Rae Earnshaw and John Vince).

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