Virtual Reality's Long-Term Effects Debated

"We should clearly notify users that we don't yet know the impact of long-term viewing," warned a VR ethics researcher.
Courtesy of Oculus
Oculus Rift

Should virtual reality headsets carry warning labels?

That was the suggestion made by one of the participants at FMX, the animation and effects conference that opened Tuesday in Stuttgart, Germany. Michael Madary, a post-doctoral researcher into virtual reality ethics at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, called for research into the impact on both VR and augmented reality.

Some types of content should be a concern, he argued. “Extreme violence and sex would raise a red flag,” he said when asked about ethical issues. “Apart from those obvious examples, we’ll be able to create avatars. I think people should be very careful in interacting with dead relatives. And body swapping."

Madary called for open dialog between content creators and researchers, and urged the VR industry to at least warn the public of potential risk. "We should clearly notify users that we don't yet know the impact of long-term viewing," he said, "and I think we need guidelines for safe usage."

Other participants focused on more immediate challenges, like the lack of original content and the proliferation of competing headsets.

Jon Peddie of Jon Peddie Research said that those looking at VR as a new business should start seeing positive results in two or three years. "Virtual reality is hot topic, but it’s not yet a hot market,” Peddie said. “The obstacle is going to be the content. Unless there’s something to show, it’s going to be a 'who cares.' And the equipment is expensive. [So I predict] good, but not phenomenal growth.”

But that presents a chicken and egg situation, as speakers on another panel pointed out that there needs to be a quantifiable audience before content creators can monetize their work.

“How do we build the audience so that we can talk about content monetization?" asked Andrew Cochrane, who’s leading VR efforts at Guillermo del Toro’s Mirada Studios. "If you want eyeballs, use [Google] Cardboard. … Nobody initially predicted Cardboard [would take off] but there are big wild cards. And things are gong to change. I think you’re going to see millions, but not tens of millions [of headsets in the market] until the 2020s.”

He also warned that while VR headsets such as Oculus Rift are already shipping, the technology is still developing and there are no standards. “We have let the consumers in way too soon," he said. "We are still bootstrapping everything. There's so much to figure out on the hardware and software side.”

Peddie said he has already counted 67 headset manufacturers, but added, "That can’t exist, especially in this nascent industry. The number of suppliers will shrink, then standards will develop." 

Content creators said VR is currently the Wild West, where they can try anything as they are still inventing the language. But for the time being, the budgets for content creation are primarily coming from marketing departments that want VR content to promote existing IP. “Right now, really only marketing departments are seeing a return on their investment,” Cochrane admitted. “But with marketing content, there’s opportunities for filmmakers to expand on the worlds they have built and narratives that they couldn’t wedge into their films."

Keith Miller, VFX supervisor at Weta Digital, recently completed a VR experience featuring King Louie from Disney’s The Jungle Book (one of two recently released Jungle Book VR experiences). He admitted that at this early stage, “The only paid content is games and adult content, but I think live-streaming for concerts and sports will take off quickly as the streaming technology develops."

Others believe VR will become social with users connecting with avatars of friends who are in different locations, and other discussed the potential of augmented reality, which merges the real world with the virtual.

“AR is not a market yet," said VR director Daffy, who started VR/AR firm Daffy London after years in the VFX business, "but I’m trying to prepare myself so that the minute it hits, I’m ready. I don’t want to wait.”

Cochrane is more cautious in his view of AR. "I might be having a conversation, but I might also be reading my Twitter feed or Googling something. I'm not here. That does scare me."

Beyond entertainment, headset makers discussed the benefits of VR in medicine (it's helped those with autism) or for education (allowing children to see beneath the ocean or the Great Wall of China).