Virtual Reality and UX: Playing with Fire

The Lawnmower Man — our past and our future

2016 marked the release of several Virtual Reality platforms: the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Samsung Gear, and Playstation VR. These platforms are no longer the over-priced, glorified-toys for the rich that they once were. Reaching prices as low as $99, these headsets now offer incredibly immersive, detailed experiences to an unprecedented audience of consumers. If past technological trends hold true, the low cost and high quality of the platform will drive content creation, and within a number of years, VR entertainment will be ubiquitous. Many futurists have looked down the road and seen our entire society oriented around virtual space — haptic feedback plugged into and replacing our real senses, every conceivable pleasure and need addressed in the virtual space. Steven Spielberg is ready to depict just such a universe in 2017 with the release of Ready Player One, a dystopian novel about teenagers battling corporate hegemony entirely in the VR sphere.

As designers, it’s a rare and privileged time to be alive and working — right on the precipice of an emerging world-changing technology. The decisions we make as UX designers with respect to VR will set conventions and standards for decades to come.

But there is a unique quality and potential to VR that sets it apart from other digital technologies — both in it’s potential to aid humankind, and in it’s potential to cause mass-suffering.

This is why we can’t have nice things

The key to this potential lies in the way our mind processes the virtual environment. Unlike traditional mediums that we experience in two dimensions, the three-dimensional quality of VR immerses our consciousness into a simulated environment to the extent that our autonomic physiological processes often can’t tell a difference. To your mind and body, what happens in the VR environment may as well be real.

To create an experience — not allude to, or suggest, or simulate, but to create a real experience in a user’s mind — this potential is as pure an expression of the essence of UX as possible. The UX designer is not influencing an experience, they are the Maker of that experience. With this level of power, the designer is essentially acting as a God to the fictional realm they create.

This kind of power has naturally sparked the minds of our most inspirational, idealistic thinkers.

Using VR (and perhaps some other additional tech), a clinician can recreate a scene that triggers fear or anxiety in a patient, putting them virtually on a plane or in a room full of people or even in a battlefield setting. 
With guidance, people can grow accustomed to the scenario until they get to the point that they can cope with the scene. Researchers have treated people with arachnophobia by exposing them to virtual spiders and even more effectively, having them touch fake spiders during that process. Studies have shown that VR exposure therapy can help people with other conditions, including fear of flying, social anxiety, and — perhaps most well documented so far — PTSD. 
-Kevin Loria

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the bountiful therapeutic uses of VR. The safety and comfort of a clinician’s room now has the previously unimaginable power to help people confront and move past their deepest fears and anxieties. But not just every day fears and anxieties — serious psychological issues as well. This article from Psychology Today shows that a clinical VR setting helped schizophrenic patients experience a 40% reduction in paranoid thoughts after only a 30 minute session. Now that the technology has finally reached a reasonable consumer price, we could see effective mass-treatment of a number of devastating mental illnesses that previously have resisted so many attempts at amelioration. What is particularly attractive about this application is the prospect of reducing reliance on pharmaceuticals, which have a litany of devastating side effects.

The future of therapy

In addition, people that don’t feel they suffer from any psychological disorder can be proactive about their mental health and engage in simulations designed to increase empathy and compassion for people much different than themselves. This research from the University of Barcelona found that people could be made to physically identify with their digital VR avatars — by putting a user into a gender, race, and size different than their own in the simulated environment, they bodies and minds showed physiological responses to interactions with their digital avatar — even if it didn’t look like them.

But, the immediacy and visceral nature of our mind’s connection to the virtual space is also what makes this technology so profoundly dangerous.

In examining the way users react to the VR environment, Michael Madary and Thomas K. Metzinger, researchers from the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, in Germany, noted:
“The power of V.R. to induce particular kinds of emotions could be used deliberately to cause suffering,” they write. “Conceivably, the suffering could be so extreme as to be considered torture.”

At first blush, that sounds absurd. But, the VR environment is unprecedented in it’s realism and immediacy. The human mind can not make a distinction between virtual events and those than happen in real life. A common reaction to having bugs dropped on to one’s head is to tear the headset off completely. Researchers that tested these reactions found that the psychological impacts lingered well after the VR session was complete, suggesting that our minds don’t make a distinction between the entertainment and real life the way we do with books and movies. Instead, these experiences are for all intents and purposes, real. That is not a consequence of good or bad design that UX professionals have had to reckon with before.

And this is the crux for the UX designer. This technology is not just a means of communication or entertainment — it’s real. We are creating real experiences that get treated as real memories, with the real emotional impact that accompanies. This places an entirely new class of power in the hands of the designer.

All professions that carry enormous consequences for failure have ethical standards — Doctors have their Hippocratic Oath to above all, “do no harm.” Engineers that design our infrastructure must pass ethical exams, as do lawyers deciding the fates of lives in our criminal justice system. The reason these ethical codes exist is because they are inevitably and invariably challenged. Economic pressure will encourage someone to commit an ethical compromise for the sake of profit, and if standards are ignored, bridges collapse.

June 28, 1983. Mianus River Bridge (Connecticut, USA). Bridge failed due to engineering design errors.

There is no such equivalent for UX Design.

Rather than unsafe buildings, the principal provenance of unethical UI is in the usage of Dark Patterns — design tools used to trick users — to do something contrary to their desires or best interests, for the purpose of benefiting your client. Before the VR space, these tools were limited to things like deceptive linking, forced choices, hidden costs, etc.

But when combined with VR, a terrifying new array of unethical UX design emerges. Unpleasant experiences branded with a competitors logo could be at the end of a forced-choice, making users suffer to decrease your competitor’s success. These experiences could even be flashed subliminally in the course of your chosen VR simulations, creating lasting psychological impact without the user even being consciously aware. Political beliefs could be programmed or deprogrammed during presentations of the news. Brand experiences could be infused to an unprecedented degree with unhealthy amounts of happiness-triggering experiences, falsely creating Pavlovian conditioned responses to products and services we rationally hate.

But these manifestations of unethical practice will not always be so obvious. What about for the purpose of data-mining?

Facebook’s data scientists, Andrew continues, are “deeply passionate about making the lives of people using Facebook better, but with the pragmatic understanding that sometimes you need to hurt the experience for a small number of users to help make things better for 1+ billion others.”

With the introduction of VR, “hurting a small number of uses” will mean causing literal psychological pain and anguish.

Will this be ethical? To manipulate the experience of your VR user group at the behest of the data department, which acts at the behest of management?

I believe not. And I believe it is the responsibility of each and every individual UX designer to consider the issue, and accept the responsibility of maintaining integrity in the face of economic pressure, whether it is the profitability of your organization or your own personal employment status.

So what is the designer to do?

Head of Design for the UK Government Louise Downe has some advice that should stop anyone going wrong in either user research or dark patterns: “There is no decision too small to push back on if you feel kind of icky about something and it doesn’t feel like the right thing to do. I’ve learnt to check what I’m doing at the tiniest level, not just to look at the broader picture of ethics and what I do”.

The future of VR holds truly unprecedented risks and rewards. If we as people hold any ethical values, we must be sure to look at our work as designers and ensure that those values are being represented and maintained throughout the design life-cycle, or the costs to our fellow human beings could be dire.

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