VR Technologist, VR Researchers Discuss the Ethics of VR at SCU Event

SCU Imaginarium
5 min readMay 16, 2018

by Lauren Mahoney

The ethics of virtual reality is a topic that has been more hotly debated as VR has become more popular. On Monday, Amy Lueck and Maura Tarnoff from SCU’s Department of English collobarated to bring a panel on this topic to SCU.

Liv Technologies CEO Cix Liv, Stanford University Virtual Human Interaction Lab Project Manager Elise Ogle, and SCU Philosophy professor Erick Ramirez, comprised the panel. The different perspectives each panelist presented fueled a lively discussion around several issues associated with the ethics of VR.

Liv noted that his company, Liv Technologies, builds technology for spectating VR experiences. He commented that a commonly heard issue with VR is that only the person in the headset is taking part in the experience. To address this Liv‘s VR interface renders people in virtual worlds in real time, so their technology acts as a window into the VR experience one is doing.

Cix Liv, Liv Technologies

Ogle shared that at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, faculty and staff and students study the psychological and behavioral effects of virtual reality experiences. Their research has found that VR offers users a powerful psychological presence: Users often respond to experiences in ways that are congruent with how they would respond in the same real life situation. For example, for those who have a fear of heights, standing on the edge of a skyscraper in VR leads to the same physiological reaction: sweaty palms, increased heart rate, and wanting to move away from the ledge.

Elise Ogle, Stanford University Virtual Human Interaction Lab

The Stanford lab focuses on how VR can be used for good and change attitudes and behaviors. They have developed experiences that showcase effects of climate change, effects of racism, what it is like to become homeless, discrimination against older people, ocean acidification, and more, and study user reactions as well as how their attitudes and behaviors change as a result.

SCU assistant professor Erick Ramirez’s research focuses on empathy, moral psychology, and more recently, virtual reality thought experiments.

He posed a few questions to get the discussion started: what unique ethical issues does VR produce? What design elements are most relevant when constructing VR simulations aiming for realistic user responses- so that they don’t think to themselves “it’s just a game”?

Ramirez discussed Stanley Milgram’s famous 1963 psychological study on obeying authority figures, and how SCU’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) approved a 2006 replication of the study- but in virtual reality. The replication, developed by University College London professor Mel Slater, reached the same conclusions as Milgram had. This got the group talking about how the ramifications of putting people in ethically questionable situations in VR is not taken into account the way it would be in “real” situations.

The VR version had crude resolution, but the behavior of characters in the replication was was similar to how people really being shocked would behave. The underlying issue with this study, Ramirez commented, is that subjects treated the experience as real, so couldn’t it be argued that it was just as unethical to put them through the VR experience as it was for Milgram to do so in real life?

As the discussion went on, the panelists discussed design elements and what people bring to an experience, and how both are relevant when it comes to violence in VR. Ogle explained that people have different levels of psychological presence- which can also be understood as a dissociation, or recognizing that this is just a virtual experience as opposed to truly feeling that what you are doing is real.

Ramirez and Liv both noted that prior to VR, there were always design elements that gave users obvious reminders that what they were doing wasn’t real. They pressed buttons A and B to shoot, rather than feeling as if they were pulling a trigger. Games always had screen overlays showing one’s health, one’s remaining bullets, and other reminders that it was just a game. However, VR offers designers a way to change these parameters, making experiences feel more real- and this can be both good and bad.

On the positive side, the panelists discussed the many uses for VR to increase empathy and prosocial behaviors, as well as educational opportunities. Virtual field trips are a great way to help kids see places and things they may not normally be able to. VR also offers a great way to help kids understand scale, particularly when it comes to more abstract concepts.

The overall conclusion? The topic of ethical issues in virtual reality currently brings up more questions than answers. The panelists also agreed that much more research about the ethics of VR is needed. This panel was a great introduction to these ethical issues, and it was fantastic hearing from the three panelists.

Thank you to Dr. Amy Lueck, Dr. Maura Tarnoff and the three panelists for a great event!

Be sure to follow all things VR on our SCU Imaginarium Facebook page, and visit our website scuimaginarium.edu forthe latest updates about the Imagine That! VR contest.



SCU Imaginarium

The Imaginarium at Santa Clara University serves as an on-campus space for students, staff, and faculty to experiment with virtual and augmented reality.