Even if we are witnessing just the early stages of progress in the area of Virtual Reality (VR), the science and the industry that is being built around it seems to be very impactful. And so are the caveats related to its ethical framework. Futurists and developers speculate about the extraordinary potential of VR to become a technology of intersubjective enlightenment for humans, facilitating shared experience and social connection. In a recent speech, futurist Jason Silva called VR technology an engine of empathy, because of its possibility to offer us a trancendental overview on how diverse and complex life is and make us experience and emphathise with the world in the way it is faced from the perspective of other humans.
Besides giving us the opportunity to float at the edges of perception, VR technologies have already been successfully applied in branches like special education, experimental learning, recruitment, medicine, rehabilitation therapy and content creation. For instance, in a recent journal researchers Albert Rizzo and Gerrard J. Kim published an article outlining how VR is making advanced contributions to recreate recovery environments for patients with brain injury. VR offers the possibility to recreate immersive simulations of functional real-world environments that can be used to rehabilitate cognitive and psychological processes in conditions that are not easily controllable in the real world (Rizzo & Kim , 2005). Also, compared to other alternatives, VR interventions seem to be more time and cost-effective.
Despite the progressive applications of the VR technology, questions about its long-term effects and resistance in regards to its integration in our life-style are present. One of the biggest issues with VR and its prolonged use are problems related to mental-healt, particularly social isolation and negative escapism. The exposure to a highly-technologised and mediatised world sometimes has a strong affect on the way people fulfill their basic needs and some scientists, like David Carr in an article for The Atlantic think that VR might only excerbate this problem. Because humans are transitioning to a stage where a sense of belonging can be found in virtual environments, it is easier for many to satisfy such social needs online and withdraw from the physical society ignoring its potential opportunities. Whether this ends up being a good or a bad thing for an individual is a somehow subjective topic.
In his book ‘Escapism’, Yi-Fu Tuan mentions that ‘escapism appears to be a natural behavioural mechanism, the mind must have need for it’. And indeed, as a result of the inability to face facts—the real world, our mind seems to be constantly escaping its current state of reality by developing filters of perception. We impose cognitive biases upon our experiences, creating cultural operating systems and religious beliefs that give us a sense of safety or belonging. Looking at it from this perspective, are not all realities virtual anyway as long as the raw experience can’t be really defined? At the same time we have been able to create languages to write novels, poems and songs for centuries, telling stories that can take us on journeys of escapism, see the world from new perspectives and feel something new while being rooted in a feeling of presence. As VR technologies can have an incredible potential power to change our experience of presence, It is important to build the right psychological framework for using it and focus on its ethical structure.
Rizzo , A.S & Kim , G.J. (2005). A SWOT analysis of the field of virtual reality rehabilitation and therapy. Presence , 14(2), 119-146.
Davis, N. (2016). The Guardian. Retrieved 17 December, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/mar/19/long-term-effects-of-virtual-reality-use-need-more-research-say-scientists
Silva, J. (2017). YouTube. Retrieved 17 December, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dO4k2Rvs94I
Walsh, K. (2017). Emergingedtechcom. Retrieved 17 December, 2017, from http://www.emergingedtech.com/2017/06/real-uses-of-virtual-reality-in-education-how-schools-are-using-vr/
Yi-fu, T. (2000). Escapism. England: Johns Hopkins University Press.