Do we need safeguards for Virtual Reality?

 Does VR use or meaning differ in public versus private space?

Does VR use or meaning differ in public versus private space?

If you had asked me a week ago what I thought of Virtual Reality (VR) for marketing and branding, I would have answered along the lines of “clear use case for gaming with some event- or specialty-based marketing application.” I recently tried out a headset this last week at a Microsoft store, and...color me wrong. Some observations:

I was self-conscious about wearing the goggles at first, but as the virtual staging room surrounded me, I completely forgot about the external world. My first “experience” transported me to a mountain top, and looking down I realized I was standing a little too close to the edge for comfort. So I tried to turn around but was immediately paralyzed by vertigo, only able to make tiny ginger steps. This physiological response was far beyond what I had imagined and enlightened me as to the experiential potential for this technology. VR has a good shot of taking off in 2017 or 2018, which raises important questions about the integration of these devices into society and what a brand might need to consider.

Will its use be primarily public or private? When you put this equipment on, you purposefully isolate yourself from rest of the world. If in public, what signal does this send to others? I have seen some people wearing headsets in public space, and it sent a clear “don’t bother me” vibe. In that situation, how can personal interaction occur? What if a person’s flight is leaving and they are unaware because they are so absorbed? Alternatively, if in a coffee shop, how does a server ask them if they need anything else? At the office, if an impromptu meeting is called, how do you interrupt someone wearing a VR headset? My sense is most use will be in private settings, but also suggests there needs to be some type of subtle visual or auditory notification cue when in public space and someone or something needs your attention.

What is the expectation of social etiquette when in a VR environment? What rules apply while waiting for others to join a meeting? Do other social norms apply (standing an appropriate distance, facial expression, hand gestures, words used, to name a few)? In real life, when we interact with others we consider how we present ourselves, react to stimuli, and interpret the context of the situation. How does this apply when any or all of those can be manipulated and presented uniquely to members of the same virtual room. Studies have shown that people are more receptive and trusting of someone else when they have similar physical characteristics. Is it ethical to mirror a participant’s physical look (shown to only that participant)? Is that fair to the other person, who may not be aware?

With as fast as technology is evolving and the potential for unintended consequences, there might need to be some guardrails around development, perhaps some standards designed around appropriate behavior. At least in the short term. I am not suggesting censorship, but as we learn about these new ways of interacting, we should proceed with caution. "Let's just see what happens" doesn't feel right. Without some safeguards, my fear is we will desensitize ourselves to interacting with others without any perceived consequences

I am interested in others’ experience with VR. Has it been as transformative for you? Do you see it taking off over the next couple of years? If so, where? Is it hype? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.