It may be Virtual, but the risks are reality

Entering into digital environments using virtual reality viewers can be an intense, emotional experience. Technology has progressed so rapidly that near-complete immersion can be achieved. Many of our senses can now be “hijacked” sufficiently enough to fool the mind into believing the reality that we are presented with. V.R. programs are designed to do just that, to enhance the immersiveness of the experience via vivid visual graphics, surround audio, and haptic feedback. Despite the many opportunities these innovations may bring, such immersive technology is not without its own set of concerns.

People are embracing Virtual Reality experiences like swimming with sharks, riding roller coasters, and skydiving because they are convinced that Virtual Reality is a way of experiencing those things risk free. Skydiving without having to risk the hard landing, swimming with sharks without the risks of being eaten or drowning etc. It’s the thrill without the threat. In real life, costs, travel, and safety are factors that limit how frequently these experiences can be had and who has access to them. These limitations no longer apply in VR. Age restrictions and star ratings for VR experiences and games do not consider these factors. Nor do they consider that when real life restrictions (such as height and weight on a roller coaster) become irrelevant, safety concerns should not be ignored. At the moment, seemingly, the only concerns being addressed before entering a virtual reality world (via VR goggles) is to establish a clear area so that participants can move around freely without knocking anything or anyone over (ex, HTC Vive). These are the only basic measures taken to protect you from accidental harm. We should also be taking steps to protect the mind from harm.

As a certified clinical Hypnotherapist I have noticed important similarities between a person’s virtual experience and their experience during a hypnotherapy session. In a hypnotherapy session the client’s imagination is used to create an immersive experience that is ultimately facilitated by a trained professional. Hypnotherapy is effective because it uses guided visualizations and directed meditation to help an individual reach a goal, or overcome fears, anxieties, or trauma. Before beginning any “intervention” in a session, a hypnotherapist creates a safe and comfortable physical, mental and emotional environment for the client. Reminding them that they are in control, that they can accept or decline suggestions provided, and they can establish distance in the session at any time if they feel the need to do so. These similarities brought me to consider how virtual reality is a vivid simulation that is comparable to our imagination, and that V.R. may benefit from existing methods for creating safe mental and emotional environments. Emotional states should be considered of paramount importance when it comes to virtual reality, as intense experiences can have lasting impacts on consumer adoption.

As when working with a client in a hypnotherapy session, first experiences, particularly for children, should include simple audio scripts to introduce the experience. These scripts can also serve as a preparatory measure instilling some safe-guards as well as suggesting a “safety-bubble” to help users filter out moments that may be particularly upsetting. For example, reminding users that this is a virtual experience as opposed to a real one is necessary because there is a part of you (your subconscious) that may believe it to be true unless these precautions are taken. It is also helpful to provide instructions as to what they can do if the experience becomes more intense than what they are comfortable with, so that they can smoothly exit the experience. Recommended, is an Exit script which slowly brings the individual out of the Virtual Experience and debriefs them on what just took place. This may prevent issues that may arise with long term use of this fantastically powerful technology.

Sample scripts for a safe Virtual Experience

For entering the virtual experience: “Welcome to virtual reality. If you move your head around in all directions you will notice this virtual environment is all around you; however real it may seem, keep in mind that you are in fact in a safe space (for example in your living room, or office). You cannot be harmed through this experience and at any time you can exit this environment by closing your eyes or removing the goggles.”

To exit the virtual experience: “I hope…you enjoyed this virtual experience. Give yourself a moment or two to take a few deep breaths in and out as you will shortly be removing the goggles, and as you do so I recommend tapping or touching the chair that you are on and just slowly getting yourself re-acquainted with your real life environment, and other people who may be present. “

Transitions: As you may have noticed the above sample scripts emphasize virtual, as opposed to real. They also add a level of “padding” and preparation so that entering and exiting virtual reality isn’t a shock in any way to the individual. Abrupt changes in the experience can be shocking and contribute to potential trauma or discomfort. Foreshadowing an event like teleporting and using slow transitions between experiences is ideal, this process is also known as acclimatization, a way of preparing the mind for what is to come to reduce shock. Even the specific “wording” of the sentences is quite important in assisting cognitive transitions, as the programming of the mind is done through language. The fields of N.L.P. and hypnotherapy emphasize language-based tools that can be used effectively in this regard.

Until we know the ramifications and unintended consequences of VR technology, such as the Epigenetic effects, any and all precautions should be taken. Entrance and Exits should be built-in for all VR experiences, especially those designed for children. Currently, the rating system is designed for reducing nausea not long term emotional effects and there are few introductory or debriefing scripts integrated into VR experiences to reduce stress or prevent trauma. If society is going to adopt VR technology, they need to enjoy it and it needs to be safe. They need to know, on some level (subconsciously) that it won’t cause long term harm. It can take only one intensely unpleasant experience to form a powerful negative (conditioned) response. The people doing Virtual Reality demonstrations should be aware this. It is their responsibility to manage these risks. Individuals in this industry are typically specialists in technology, software development, and computer engineering. It would be beneficial if more counselling psychologists and therapists were involved, particularly those trained in hypnosis, an area that specializes in the inner workings of the subconscious mind.

The advances of this technology are so rapid that we can expect that soon VR devices will have sensors that monitor brain wave activity, heart rate, and cortisol levels in the blood in order to monitor a user’s stress levels. Perhaps, a built in safety feature that automatically, or on demand, (and slowly) shuts the system off when critical thresholds are reached (for example the warning that already takes place with head phones and dangerously high volume levels). Until then, it is our social responsibility to apply rudimentary preventative measures based on existing knowledge such as the effects of stress on our body and long-term health or our understanding of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD being a state that can occur from repeated or prolonged exposure to a perceived life threatening situation. Currently, VR has been looked at as a treatment for PTSD, but with VR becoming more immersive it is necessary that we take precautions to prevent it from causing PTSD.

This is new and exciting technology. It has the potential to alter the way we interact with, and share experiences in, our world; yet it also has the potential to harm us in ways we do not yet understand. Let’s apply reasonable caution, and ensure it enhances our quality of life rather than endangering it. Virtual Reality can help improve education, therapy, and medicine, but it must be done correctly and with care, or the implications could be devastating despite our good intentions.

T. L. Caruso (TLC). RcH, B.A. Linguistics.

Researcher and Writer of subconscious influence, perception, immersion and virtual reality. 360 video Content Creator and resident Subconscious specialist for www.ThisIsMeInVR.com

References:

Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. (2014, September 18). How stress tears us apart: Enzyme attacks synaptic molecule, leading to cognitive impairment. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 9, 2016 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/09/140918091418.htm