The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) has set a series of standards and ethics codes for the use of computers and electronic devices such as virtual reality (VR). Michael Madary and Thomas K. Metzinger of Johannes Gutenberg Universität Mainz, in Mainz, Germany, have also tried their hand at designing a code of ethics for VR. I’ve even written articles and talked about VR ethics myself. These ethical guidelines range from general to highly specific, from common sense to unattainably lofty, while always retaining a logic of protecting people from harm.
Personally, I don’t think the codes are working at all. While most of us act in good faith and try to do the (highly subjective) right thing, the truth is that almost no one pays attention to the VR ethical codes. At South by Southwest in March 2017, Nonny de la Peña asked a group of approximately 200 top VR and tech professionals if they’d read the IEEE Code of Ethics. Only a couple people raised their hands, and many (myself included) admitted to not even knowing these ethics codes existed.
The underlying cause is that no regulating bodies have the authority to give teeth to the codes or punish violators. VR’s rapid technological evolution and sales growth have far outpaced any attempts at oversight and regulation. Instead, economics and market forces provide the primary influences on how we use and develop VR. In other words, no one holds companies accountable for much else beyond profits. The rest of us typically throw our hands up in disgust … and then use their products anyway.
Ethics is far too big a topic to adequately cover in one column. Below, I’ll explore three important ethics subcategories as a proxy for how well the VR industry is faring on the whole:
- Privacy and consent
- Diversity and inclusivity
The good: Accessibility
VR is, by its very nature, a good medium for expanding accessibility, which is ethically admirable. For example, everyone, including people with disabilities, can virtually visit remote mountaintops, canyons, and seafloors, not to mention Mars. Well, not quite everyone can do this. While users can see and hear the virtual worlds, the other senses are largely excluded. That means hearing impaired, blind, and visually impaired people cannot easily experience VR.
However, several companies are creating solutions to provide VR access for these communities. Microsoft is currently testing a VR “canetroller” that allows visually impaired people to physically navigate within and through virtual environments. Similarly, Google is working on a virtual laser pointer interface that audibly tells blind and visually impaired users what virtual objects their two hand controllers are pointing at and also indicates the distance to the objects. Samsung’s Relúmĭno AR glasses help the partially blind see with enhanced clarity. These and other similar projects indicate that the industry is continuing to head in a good direction, ethically speaking.
The bad: Privacy and consent
Every major VR headset and software company collects data on its users. This data is often shared with network partners, used for marketing, sold, stored, and occasionally hacked or otherwise compromised. For example, Facebook, the parent company of the Oculus Rift VR headset, has received a lot of bad press regarding data privacy, consent, and hackers in the past couple years. Fortunately, little of that press has been directly about Oculus, but it’s still disconcerting to have no control over our personal data. Other big VR companies also give cursory nods to privacy and consent, but they’re ultimately similarly opaque. The EU’s recent adoption of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a step in the right direction, but the VR industry’s privacy and consent ethics still leave much room for improvement.
The ugly: Diversity and inclusivity
Diversity and inclusivity are two related areas where we’re blatantly and brazenly violating ethical codes. Specifically, the VR industry, like all of tech, is overwhelmingly comprised of straight, white, non-disabled, 20- to 40-something cisgendered males. Not coincidentally, much VR content is targeted at this demographic. People outside of this demographic often feel excluded or discriminated against, and rightly so. In many ways this is a difficult problem to solve, but from a certain perspective, it’s a no-brainer. Hire diverse teams, pay them the same, and create content aimed at diverse communities. What’s so hard about that?
What can we do about it?
Ethics discussions can be perceived as ivory tower debates with no real implications for regular people in the real world. One solution is to give power to an existing governing body (or create a new one) and collectively agree to adhere to ethical codes for the use of VR, with punitive actions when people violate these codes. A second, simpler solution is to talk about ethics in VR with your VR and non-VR peers alike, put it in your company codes of conduct, and create a culture of awareness of VR ethics throughout the industry.
A third solution—one that I obviously favor—is to publicly write about ethics and VR with the intention of increasing awareness, stirring debate, and changing behavior. As Buckminster Fuller said, “If humanity does not opt for integrity we are through completely. It is absolutely touch and go. Each one of us could make the difference.” We all need to engage with these thorny issues to come up with better solutions. What do you think we could do, individually and collectively, to improve how we adopt and use VR?
The IEEE Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality Working Group is working on a whole list of standards for VR and AR safety, usage, ratings, etc.
Here’s a cool video of Microsoft’s cane controller in action.
Carucci, Ron. “Why Ethical People Make Unethical Choices.” Harvard Business Review. 16 December 2016.
Wankel, Charles and Shaun Malleck (ed.). Emerging Ethical Issues of Life in Virtual Worlds. Charlotte, North Carolina: Information Age Publishing, 2010.