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Why virtual reality could create a danger for actual reality

by Julian Burrell and A Martínez | Take Two®

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Applied VR provides virtual reality experiences for patients before, during and after surgery. The company is part of the Techstars HealthTech Accelerator based at the Cedars-Sinai Innovation Space in West Hollywood. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

At the Electronic Entertainment Expo, consumers get to learn all about new video games and the hardware that drives them.

One hardware that's considered to be the next frontier for gaming and other media is virtual reality.

VR headsets create a new level of immersion — one that takes a user right inside an artificial world. But some say that intense experience can also create a level of danger that hasn't been fully recognized.

"The difference between virtual reality in a headset and a screen-based game is the level of embodiment that you have," expert Todd Richmond told Take Two's A Martinez.

Richmond is a director at USC's Institute for Creative Technologies, where he and his students frequently experiment with VR. He's traveled around the country giving lectures about some of the darker things that the technology can be used for.

Richmond understands that VR has been used for a lot of good. But he doesn't think that means the downfalls should be ignored.

"It can be used as a therapeutic tool in a clinical setting. But anytime you've got a capability that can give you good outcomes, you have the possibility for bad outcomes as well," Richmond said.

Why VR carries new risks when applied to gaming

People have long been skeptical of the mature content that's been included in video games. Richmond says that playing a game with a virtual reality headset brings a whole new level of concern.

"When you go into VR, you're basically ceding one or more of your senses to whatever a developer created," Richmond said. "You're basically sealed off from the outside world. It's a very different relationship that you begin to develop with the material around you. It's this sense of embodiment that you are really IN the game as opposed to playing the game." 

But that sense of immersion what entices tech consumers to VR. And if they're conscious of simply wearing the headset, where does the risk come from?

Richmond says it comes from a trick that Hollywood has used for movies for decades.

"I think what happens is it's around this suspension of disbelief," Richmond said. "When you become really immersed and you start to block off your outside cues of what's real and not real, things can get weird very quickly. We know that we can use this to change people's behaviors and to alter their cognitive patterns."

The questions about VR society must confront

Richmond believes that developers should be mindful of the content that they are creating, instead of simply trying to make something that sells. Some of those questions may not be easy to confront, but Richmond says that they are necessary.

"Is it okay to rape someone in VR? People have argued that it's just a virtual character so it should be okay. Is child molestation okay in VR? Those are questions that we as a society really need to be asking and determining where our boundaries are," Richmond said.

"What we don't want to happen is 'Just let commerce have its way and let the commercial sector dictate what is acceptable.' Because the commercial sector is beholden to one person and that is the shareholder. "

To hear the full conversation, click the blue player above.

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