Virtual worlds are coming for humanity, and a group of researchers and technologists want to make sure we're ready when they arrive.
Next week, three top researchers in virtual reality, augmented reality and body computing are having an informal meeting with members of a government regulatory agency to kick off what they hope will be a conversation about the potential dangers of immersive technology and the need for more studies into the impact they might have on people.
"I see a lot of people in tech saying that they're not responsible for this technology, they're just developing it; that it's up to society to figure out what's safe, ethical and moral," said Todd Richmond, who heads up the University of Southern California's Mixed Reality Lab. "I say, 'No.' The development community needs to accept some responsibility and be part of the conversation."
Richmond says that history is full of technology that was left to the consumer to sort through and figure out, and often that's fine.
"Any technology goes through this period of it being the wild, wild west, and then it settles down," he said. "If it's technology that's not critical for a human's well-being you can leave it to the market to figure it out."
That's what happened when consumers weighed the value of VHS versus Beta, Blu-ray versus HD DVD, or different cell phone systems. But not all of these sorts of emerging technologies can be left to their own devices, both because that can be dangerous and because some of this new tech is simply too confusing to sort through without a high degree of knowledge.
Richmond said that both virtual and augmented reality have the potential to significantly impact humanity, and so far, very little has been done in the form of longitudinal studies.
"We do need to be doing studies on the impact of VR and AR and, at the risk of sounding like Rev. Lovejoy's wife from 'The Simpsons,' what about the children?" he said. "The reality is that a child's brain development is a thing, and we do have this possibility of, if you immerse somebody and allow them to embody certain situations at a very young age, while the brain is still plastic, it may lead to deleterious effects. The same could be true of adults, but less so."
I pointed out to Richmond that the same sort of concerns have been raised about television, movies, comics and, most recently, video games, but there seems to be no solid evidence that backs those concerns.
Richmond said he agrees that he sounds like the sort of people who used to argue that comics might rot your brain.
"I think I do sound like that," he said. "But I will also argue that this medium is fundamentally different than those others because of this embodiment that happens in VR that doesn't happen in TV, movies, comics, books or games."
Even in videogames, he said, no matter how much a developer may strive to have a player embody a character, there is always that border around the screen that serves as a sort of cognitive separator. Not so with VR and AR.
Richmond, who will be joined by Skip Rizzo, the director of medical virtual reality at USC, and Leslie Saxon, who heads up USC's center for body computing, isn't arguing for the technology to be placed on hold or not used. He said he simply wants more long-term studies on the impact of the technology and perhaps a more thoughtful approach to its release.
"Let's at least acknowledge that there could be issues," he said. "Let's do some of the work to figure out what the unintended consequences might be.
"VR developers wield a lot of power. You are literally putting someone's brain in your hands."
While VR headsets have already started to hit, with big players like HTC, Samsung, Valve, Oculus, Facebook and Google already selling their own displays, Richmond said it's not too late.
"It's never too late, because if you say it's too late, you're giving up," he said. "Yeah, the genie is already out of the bottle, but the market penetration is way less than 1%. Most people haven't experienced VR at all.
"One reason I'm being so vocal now is that we don't have widespread use of this. I think VR sucks right now, but it's not going to in 10 years." — Good Game/Tribune News Service