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Have you used Virtual Reality yet?

Dr Victoria Baines, a visiting associate at the Oxford Internet Institute, talks about how to help young people use emerging technologies, like virtual reality, in a safe way. 

The chances are your kids have already used Virtual Reality, so it’s time for us all to consider how they can enjoy it safely and securely.

The very first thing everyone does – and I mean everyone – when they put on a VR headset for the first time is turn around. It’s a genuine thrill to be able to see where you are in 360 degrees. Tech companies and academics call this kind of technology ‘immersive’ because it completely surrounds you. In fact, many VR experiences are advertised precisely on the promise of making you feel like you’re ‘really there’.

As with any new technology, we need to ensure we’re properly informed about possible safety issues, so we can reduce the risk of unwanted or upsetting experiences. 

VR is already bringing great benefits for education. The Norwegian Army uses it to improve the peripheral vision of its tank drivers. Stanford University in the US trains cardiologists using a Virtual Heart program. The Natural History Museum has partnered with Google Cardboard, allowing people all over the world to explore its galleries without having to travel to London. Meanwhile, VR is proving to be hugely enabling for some people with mobility issues. The promise is for all of us to do the seemingly unthinkable. I’ve already travelled to the edge of space and the bottom of the sea while sat on the sofa.

As with any new technology, we need to ensure we’re properly informed about possible safety issues, so we can reduce the risk of unwanted or upsetting experiences. If you have had a games console with motion sensors, like Nintendo Wii or Xbox One, you’ll know from experience that people can trip over, thump someone else accidentally or shorten the lives of treasured family ornaments if they don’t clear the area in which they are gaming. In VR, you can’t see the room at all when you’re wearing the goggles, so companies like Oculus, HTC and others have produced advice specifically designed to help you create a safe physical space to play.

Until recently, using VR was largely a solo activity. You put the headset on and had an experience, but the only way you could share it with someone else was to take off the headset. All this has changed with the advent of Social VR. As the name suggests, it combines the immersive world of VR with the functions we’re used to on social media. Since Oculus is owned by Facebook, it’s not really a surprise that they would try to integrate the two, and you can see their current progress on Oculus’ You Tube channel. Social VR feels a lot like the online gaming we already know. You choose an avatar for yourself and find people you already know – which on Oculus is made easier by linking to your Facebook account. You can do voice calls with your friends, which on Oculus are called Parties. You can also invite your friends to join you in apps or environments that admit more than one user.

‘The more immersed kids are in these spaces, the more we will all need to ensure that they can navigate them safely – and know what to do if something doesn’t feel quite right.’

Oculus’ Safety Centre has perhaps the most comprehensive advice for parents on Social VR, and there’s much here that you will recognise from Facebook’s rules on acceptable behaviour. What’s new is the inclusion of advice on how to respect other people’s personal space in public places. That’s because when you have a VR headset on, you feel like you have a body in that environment. If someone walks up to you and touches you, it feels – to some extent, at least – like you’re actually being touched. Some VR already has touch controllers that receive haptic feedback, allowing your hands to feel rumbles and similar vibrations. A number of companies are developing gloves designed to help you feel resistance when you touch something in VR. Making VR more of a physical experience is evidently very much on developers’ minds.

So, if we think about the kinds of unwanted experiences that kids can have in online environments already – bullying, approaches from strangers, inappropriate chat – we need to prepare ourselves also for the possibility that these experiences in VR could have a physical aspect. And the more immersed kids are in these spaces, the more “present” they feel in them, the more we will all need to ensure that they can navigate them safely – and know what to do if something doesn’t feel quite right.

I will be digging into this further with examples and practical advice in my talk at Digital Families on 10 October. I hope to see you there!

Dr Victoria Baines will be speaking at our Digital Families 2018 conference about the risks and opportunities associated with emerging technologies.

Find out more and book tickets here.