A whole new world of trouble: virtual reality content must be regulated to keep public safe, warns Chinese researcher

Cases where users of simulators and devices like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive subsequently confuse reality and virtual reality may be multiplying

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 April, 2016, 9:53pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 April, 2016, 9:53pm

Even though it isn’t technically real, or even fully developed yet, virtual reality is already spurring safety concerns beyond the clunky glasses and simulated worlds that users temporarily inhabit.

One scholar who visited the Beijing Institute of Technology last year was reportedly so influenced by his experience of testing out a sports car racing simulator that he walked outside and immediately caused a traffic accident.

“He got too used to the simulation and hit the gas too aggressively while driving,” said Weng Dongdong, a professor at the institute’s School of Optoelectronics.

To minimise the risk of such threats to public safety being repeated as VR devices like Facebook’s Oculus Rift, HTC’s Vive and the Samsung VR take off globally, Weng has been urging authorities in China to introduce a rating system for content produced for such gadgets.

Unlike augmented reality, or the blending of virtual reality and real life encapsulated by Google Glass, Microsoft’s Hololense or the text-superimposed shades worn by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the original Terminator movie, there is no distinction between reality and the unreal in VR.

Most Chinese VR companies make devices based on technologies from big players, or focus on VR content such as movies and games, said Lin Renxiang, an analyst for China data and consulting firm iResearch.

Weng said Chinese authorities should step in as the country has no way at present of assessing the effect of virtual reality content on people’s health.

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“All the side effects of consuming media become amplified when it comes to VR,” Weng said, referring to problems like children getting addicted to playing computer games or being traumatised by content of a violent or other nature.

“It also changes people’s perception and behaviour in the real world,” he added.

Because of this, Lin called for a more conservative rating system than the one currently applied to movies and video games.

WATCH: virtual reality - SteamVR featuring the HTC Vive

Weng, who has been developing virtual flight training systems for the military, said it is a common practice in China to skip simulated plane crashes so as not to disturb pilots mentally.

“When VR content gets very real, especially when people start to mistake it for real-life experience, you have to remind them sometimes that it isn’t real,” he said.

VR devices can damage users’ eyesight if they are used excessively due to the strong lighting, Weng said. Moreover, users must stare at a fixed distance for sustained periods, rather than having the freedom to rove around from point to point as they would on a smartphone screen or tablet.

However, the impact of the technology may not all be bad.

One study released by Stanford University found that people who have experienced superhuman powers via virtual reality are likely to be more altruistic in real life.

“The industry is still exploring the numerous possibilities of how to use VR properly,” said Lin, adding that the state of most VR content is still quite primitive and capable of causing health and other problems.

The number of people using VR content in mainland China will exceed 1.4 million this year, according to estimates by iResearch. It expects this figure to more than double next year.

Yet VR and AR devices may be as big as the current market for games consoles by 2025, Goldman Sachs said in a report earlier this year. In fact, the combined market could be bigger than the current market for notebooks or TVs in the event of further technological breakthroughs, it added.