VR and AR: The Ethical Challenges Ahead

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Immersive technologies will raise new ethical challenges, from issues of access, privacy, consent, and harassment to future scenarios we are only now beginning to imagine.

VR and AR: The Ethical Challenges Ahead
Credit: leungchopan / Shutterstock © 2018

As virtual and augmented reality develop rapidly, we have seen their potential to transform our relationship to technology and society. In the many projects we have chronicled in this series, we see an expanding opportunity to reinvent learning. However, immersive technologies will raise new ethical challenges, from issues of access, privacy, consent, and harassment to future scenarios we are only now beginning to imagine.

Of course, every new technology disrupts established practices. We've seen the internet democratize information; watched social media transform our sense of privacy, personal relationships, and political debates; and witnessed the mobile era make technology ubiquitous and completely portable. Many of the issues raised by these developments are still the catalyst for debates in the educational community. Not surprisingly, many of these questions resurface in virtual and augmented environments.

In previous articles in this series, we have seen how deeply realistic VR experiences can hijack our senses. Studies suggest that VR experiences can counter our tendency to stereotype by race or gender through having people virtually embody the experience of others. However, that also means it has the potential to reinforce negative stereotypes. We are already dealing with the crisis of "fake news" in society and on our campuses. Are we also ready to deal with the impact of fake realities in our academic work and conversations? How should digital literacy be defined when human experience is no longer the touchstone for reality?

As immersive technologies become ever more realistic with graphics, haptic feedback, and social interactions that closely align with our natural experience, we foresee the ethical debates intensifying. What happens when the boundaries between the virtual and physical world are blurred? Will VR be a tool for escapism, violence, and propaganda? Or will it be used for social good, to foster empathy, and as a powerful new medium for learning?

New Forms of Storytelling and Advocacy Journalism

One of the most exciting developments for VR and 360° video has been in immersive journalism. Some of the most well-known 360° video experiences — such as Clouds Over Sidra and the more recent International Red Cross AR experience Enter the Room — have the power to create empathy for children and others caught in the middle of regional conflicts. For many students, climate change remains an abstract phenomenon until they have the opportunity to experience it virtually. With VR and 360° video, issues from around the globe have a newfound immediacy and often evoke a call to action.

As artists, reporters, and students create these stories, many of the traditional ethical codes of journalism will still apply. The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, which is the basis of many news organizations' own codes, categorizes journalistic integrity under four main headings: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable. But the sense of presence in VR can put viewers at the center of a scene for highly sensitive social issues, making it a far more powerful platform for advocacy journalism.

The VR pioneer Nonny de la Peña straddles the boundary between traditional and advocacy journalism, working on issues such as hunger, solitary confinement in prison, and protest lines at abortion clinics. In her projects, she uses authentic audio paired with recreating the environment and events in the Unity game engine and motion-capture studio. To ensure credibility, de la Peña is careful to document her work and the perspective she takes in her projects. Figure 1 shows a screen shot from Across the Line, an immersive virtual reality experience that combines 360° video and computer-generated imaging to put viewers in the shoes of a patient entering a health center for a safe and legal abortion. The experience was created by de la Peña and Planned Parenthood.

CGI person staring in front of them. Behind them are signs leaning against a bench that say 'Abortion does not make you Un-Pregnant it makes you the mother of a Dead Baby!', 'Abortion is Murder', and 'Her blood is on your hands!!!'
Figure 1. Scene from Across the Line

We will also have to address how far we are willing to go in using VR to present critical issues. The NGO Animal Equity caught both praise and criticism for its intense iAnimal 360° experience. Instead of a dry report or a video on the meatpacking industry, the group created an immersive experience of standing inside a slaughterhouse. Even viewing it through Google Cardboard can be a difficult experience for some users, raising issues of whether we will need to offer advance warnings of the potential emotional impact of an immersive experience.

The next generation of students will need to understand the power of immersive technologies to shape opinions and serve a diverse set of agendas. Unlike text, where you can easily present competing views and perspectives, VR narrative experiences today often focus on presenting specific points of view. While social VR can create a space for debating these issues, we also need to rethink how we define digital literacy in a world of virtual experiences.

To fully understand the power of this medium we need to have students become creators and not just consumers. By understanding the design process underlying the creation of virtual worlds, students can be better prepared to assess immersive experiences.


With the development of social media, we've faced new forms of harassment and racism in the digital environment. VR, especially social VR, will not only provide new ways to engage students and participate in virtual worlds but also give bad actors new opportunities to leverage the technology for their own agendas. This is particularly true in "walkthrough VR," where users are free to move around and engage with others, seemingly free of the consequences in real life. Some platforms such as AltspaceVR provide a way of insulating oneself from unwanted advances by securing a safe space around an avatar (though that hardly solves the underlying issues). We need to recognize that harassment in VR can become pervasive and have a significant emotional impact on users.

For the moment, our current university and IT policies may be able to address cases that parallel harassment and racism in real life. But as VR evolves and virtual environments are populated with avatars that we "own," our policies may be forced to deal with futuristic scenarios such as the appropriation of another's avatar or transforming its appearance or actions in negative ways. In a future scenario, augmented and mixed reality (MR) may be able to associate digital information and objects with our physical bodies and identities without our knowledge or consent. These developments may lead to some students becoming reluctant to participate in advanced virtual environments and even asking to opt out. With VR, AR, and MR impacting human experience on the most fundamental levels, the issues will be both unanticipated and complex.

Student Data, Privacy, and Consent

As Gizmodo noted back in 2016 when the Oculus Rift headset was released, early adopters spotted troubling language in the terms of service and privacy policy. While Oculus did not claim ownership of user content, they retain the rights to "…use, copy, display, store, adapt, publicly perform and distribute…content for their services." More invasive from an educational standpoint are statements in the privacy policy that allow the company to collect data on the device's precise location and a user's physical movements and dimensions.

While higher education institutions and technology vendors have often struggled with the extent of access to student data, VR, AR, and MR open an entirely new frontier of capturing data related to students' physical movements and, eventually through biometrics, capturing their emotional states. As immersive technology evolves — especially with mind control interfaces — our physical location, gaze, and even our emotions may well be the new battleground for privacy.

Accessibility Issues

One of the primary challenges educators face in implementing virtual reality is the question of accessibility. While VR can increase understanding for people with disabilities, it has only recently begun to address how we accommodate users with different needs. Research is being done in this area that will bear fruit in the long term. For example, Microsoft recently developed a VR haptic controller for the visually impaired. Working with the HTC Vive headset, the "Canetroller" allows users to navigate a virtual space much as they would do in the real world (see figure 2).  

person holding a can attached to a harness. The tip of the cane is next to a trash can.
Figure 2. "Canetroller," a peripheral device designed to work with the HTC Vive headset and tracker

Google is exploring how spatial audio cues can be used for navigating and interacting with virtual environments. Finally, Samsung's C-Labs has released Relúmĭno, a Gear VR app that can enhance visual clarity and contrast for users. While these are positive developments, accessibility issues remain a challenge that educators will need to monitor closely.

A New Digital Divide?

Given the high cost of many immersive technology devices, we might also encounter another digital divide. While mobile VR keeps costs low by leveraging users' smartphones, the current high-end VR headsets can run $400–800 and require an expensive computer and broadband. Self-contained headsets will be less expensive but will still run $200–400. MR goggles and AR glasses (when they are released) will be out of the price range of many students. One "solution" we need to watch for is the offer of free or low-cost hardware and access in return for access to personal data. Just as in the early days of desktops and laptops, institutions may need to provide opportunities for walk-in use and equipment loans to ensure equity of access.

Finally, to ensure that immersive experiences represent diversity, we need to make sure that marginalized communities have access to the appropriate tools and skills required to use them. It is necessary not only to have diverse design teams in the industry but also to make sure that there is broad access to the immersive technology ecosystem.

Emerging Recommendations and Guidelines

With the rapid pace of change in immersive technology, we can sketch out some recommendations and areas to focus on. Here is a short list of what we think is important:

  • Immersive computing and 360° journalism will raise new challenges in how we incorporate multiple perspectives and manage the intensity of virtual experiences.
  • The experiential nature of immersive technology will demand a new framework for digital literacy in both the learning environment and society.
  • Harassment issues will migrate from social media platforms to virtual interactions and will carry the same weight as they do in real life.  
  • We need to anticipate that providers will seek to extend their reach far beyond the traditional boundaries of privacy and personal identity to affect physical movements and our emotions.
  • Educators will need to demand that VR and AR be accessible to everyone, regardless of their ability status or socioeconomic background.
  • The long-term effect of deeply immersive experiences is not yet known, and informed consent for VR research studies should include an explicit statement that immersive experiences can have a lasting influence on behavior.
  • The law takes time to catch up with technology developments, and initially we will need to rely on longstanding principles in the physical world.

VR, AR, and MR are revolutionary developments for higher education and society at large. They will bring new opportunities for learning, research, science, work, and entertainment. As we move toward a future of immersive technologies and artificial intelligence, we need to anticipate new ethical challenges and develop practices and policies for a world of deeply immersive experiences. We're facing not just a new technology but a new way for people to experience the world and connect with each other. It will be up to us to engage our students in a conversation for a very different world — one that shifts from the Information Age to the Experiential Age.

Emory Craig is Director of eLearning and Instructional Technology at the College of New Rochelle and Co-Founder at Digital Bodies.

Maya Georgieva is Director, Digital Learning at The New School and Co-Founder at Digital Bodies.

© 2018 Emory Craig and Maya Georgieva. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.