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When XR goes wrong

As we’ve explored in previous steps, immersive experiences can be powerful; and the influence a VR maker can have on their audience is substantial. It’s not just about the immediate physiological response, but the ability to create long-lasting unsettling memories and even trauma.

When a person puts on a headset, they are vulnerable, especially in virtual reality. How?

  • a) Physically: users can lose a sense of the physical space they are in

  • b) In the virtual space: users are dropped into a virtual environment that can impact them psychologically and physiologically.

Whereas TV and film involve showing your audience a situation, VR involves them in it as participants. They are active and that’s the crucial difference when it comes to things that may go wrong. There are many ways this can happen, so let’s explore two examples of both physical and virtual risks:

Immediate physical safety risks with VR or AR sets ups

It’s perhaps obvious, but every virtual experience happens in a physical space. Unlike most of our lived experience, our mind is tricked into seeing things that just, aren’t there. This essential quality can cause issues, severe injury or even death. In Moscow, for instance, a 44-year-old man tragically died in 2017 after falling over in VR and being impaled by his glass coffee table which smashed with the impact of his fall. Globally, the hugely popular AR app Pokemon Go has caused numerous pedestrian accidents According to the American Safety Council,

“Twisted ankles, bruised shins, and other bodily injuries have been reported from excited players. There is even a growing phenomenon of “sore legs” from players not accustomed to exercise have been getting up and outside to seek Pokémon.”

Every XR creator must consider the physical risks associated with their product, as part of the concept development and user testing process. Whilst there is no AR/VR specific legislation in the UK, conducting proper risk assessments will be vital in your role as a responsible immersive media maker. Consider factors such as:

  • headset hygiene
  • safety buddies
  • avoiding nausea
  • avoiding repetitive strain injuries
  • post-VR decompression
  • clear guidance on the user setup for surroundings

Bias or blind spots in VR experience design

When making VR, you are constructing a slice of a world for your audience to inhabit and live in for a period of time. As a creator, you define the space, the rules, the physics, the people – everything.

The power gets described as almost ‘god-like’. This is where problems can emerge. Bias’ can be heavily amplified, with the impact of blind spots particularly severe.

An example of the potential impact is sexual harassment in social VR spaces. These spaces are virtual places you can spend time in as an avatar, hanging out with other avatars/people. The characters you encounter can be people you know already or strangers.

According to research by consultancy The Extended Mind, 49% of female regular VR users have been sexually harassed in these virtual spaces. Here is one harrowing account from female VR user Jordan Belamire:

“So, there I was shooting down zombies alongside another real-time player named BigBro442. Suddenly, BigBro442’s disembodied helmet faced me dead-on. His floating hand approached my body, and he started to virtually rub my chest. “Stop!” I cried. I must have laughed from the embarrassment and the ridiculousness of the situation. This goaded him on, and even when I turned away from him, he chased me around, making grabbing and pinching motions near my chest.”

These sorts of experiences are all too common in social VR. The reason why they happen is not just because of the behaviour of the users, but the environment: just like in real life, people’s behaviours are affected by culture and norms. Blind spots can lead to VR platform makers missing important design features, or setting up the conditions for things to happen that they never could have imagined - as it isn’t a part of their lived experience.

A proven mitigation strategy for blind spots in product development is involving a wide range of perspectives as early as possible. That diversity in perspective will not only lead to a wider appeal but also help you fulfil your role as a responsible immersive media maker.

There are many more examples of XR going wrong – a whole book could be written on this topic as each immersive product is unique, and therefore comes with its own selection of hazards. Ultimately, XR is just like real-life, and like real life, it is never risk-free. As a creator of immersive experiences, the two most significant steps that you can take to mitigate against harm are:

  • Conduct thorough, well-researched risk assessments
  • Engage in user group consultation and testing

The earlier in your project you take these steps the more effective they’ll be.

As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility - and this is very much the case with immersive technologies.

© Catherine Allen

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This article is from the free online course:

Introduction to Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality

Lancaster University