News & Perspectives

VR and the Real World: from Travel to Ethics

VR and the Real World: from Travel to Ethics

An Interview with Jeremy Bailenson (Part 3)
Perspective// Posted by: Jeff Greenwald / 17 Mar 2018
Jeremy Bailenson on VR and Ethics

ENTER: I recently heard that millennials are staying at home now, which is actually cutting down very slightly on CO2 emissions. But might VR technology impact people’s general health, in terms of indoor VR experiences replacing outdoor hiking, skiing, running, biking, climbing?

JB: It would be a travesty if people stopped exercising and spent hours a day in VR. That’s certainly not what I advocate, and I hope that doesn’t happen. The honest answer is, we don’t know. Anyone who tries to predict how people use technology is typically wrong. When you look at use cases of VR now, there is a very small subset of a population that will spend hours inside VR—but that is by far the outlier. What I advocate is using VR for 10 or 20 minutes, maybe once or twice a week, if there’s content that’s special. But it’s certainly not an everyday thing for me.

ENTER: All of this is a clear win for designers, engineers, and programmers. How might this benefit the blue collar workforce?

JB: Let me think that through. (Pause) So I’m trying to think about VR compared to other forms of technology. So if I were to put that question back on you, how would you answer that about the smartphone industry? Is there an answer for that?

ENTER: Well, in China it’s created a lot of blue collar jobs. I really don’t know if it’s created many here. I think things like with telephones or televisions or cable, there’s a workforce that gets out there installing and doing basic tech work. But I really don’t know.

JB: Let me give you an answer here. It’s an example, so maybe not as satisfying as an answer.

I’ve co-founded this company called Striver. Striver uses VR to train athletes. But we weren’t training athletes how to kick and throw and run; we were training them, basically, how to recognize a pattern. When a quarterback goes to line scrimmage, he’s got to look around, and turn his head back and forth. The pattern in this case is the defense: if they’re going to blitz or not, or whatever the defensive configuration is. Then he’s got to make a decision. Do you change the play, or keep the original play?

Then you’ve got to communicate that decision to your teammates so that they know it. In general, what we were very successful with across many sports—with, for example, the German national soccer team, or the US Olympic ski team— is showing them is recognize a pattern, make a quick decision, and then communicate that decision to others.

We had an executive from Walmart visit —a football fan—and he said, “You know, this exact process works really well for our employees.” So what we did (and we had to keep this secret for a year) was spend a lot of time going through Wal-Mart’s training manual. It was very exciting in terms of democratizing VR. We found five to ten things that would be really special in VR. One example is called “holiday rush,” the day after Thanksgiving. You’re in the store and there’s people all over the place, running and screaming and yelling at you, and you’re this new person working at Walmart. You’ve got to figure out what to do. Another example is putting somebody at the deli counter. They’ve got to look around and recognize: Is there a sharp knife out? Is there a customer you haven’t looked at? Is there a safety violation?

As of today, we have trained 150,000 Wal-Mart employees in VR over the past year, and they love it. It’s fun and engaging for them, and we’ve got data that they’re learning better with VR compared to the other training techniques. It’s an example of using VR to be better at your job, and that’s not necessarily [a benefit only to] the technology sector.

ENTER: Do you see providers of real world experiences, real reality—from adventure to travel to sex—taking a hit from all this?

JB: I went to Borneo—which has always been a dream of mine, because of all of the amazing primates they have—and gave a talk, There must have been 5,000 people in the audience—in Borneo. And the question was, “Is VR going to help our country by showing the world how amazing it is such that tourists want to come here, or is it going to eventually replace people coming here, and ruin our tourism industry?” Those are the two sides of that VR coin. And I’m always honest when I say, “I don’t know.” This is an instance where you can certainly see it inspiring people to visit a place, but you can also see how it’s going to reduce travel to places because the VR experiences are pretty darn good. One answer that’s kind of depressing is, the wealthy people get to go to the place, and the poor can only experience it in VR. That’s certainly not something that I hope happens. On the other hand, going back to climate change, as we get 11 billion people on this planet, we can’t just have everybody going to the Great Barrier Reef; it’s not going to be able to sustain it. Something’s gotta give. I don’t know how the system evolves, but something's gotta give. So I don’t know if it’s going to hurt the economics, but I don’t think everybody gets to go to those places.

On your question on sex, and my experience with virtual pornography, I don’t know anybody in my network of people that has tried it. Maybe I know one person. And I’m not trying to be high and mighty or a prude here; it just hasn't taken off. The numbers came in last year. I think that the pornography industry in VR made $96 million last year. That’s not nothing, but it’s not the billions that one might think. The jury’s still out on this one.

ENTER: And sex robots are becoming almost a more persuasive alternative for people.

You can certainly combine them. You can combine VR with robots. That’s probably where we’ll go. Some combination of actual touch from robots and virtual overlays to change what you’re seeing.

ENTER: When someone willingly enters this place of being—a very vulnerable, multimodal realm—what’s to stop what’s happening now, basically, whenever you’re online: powerful, unsolicited enticements delivered like targeted online ads, but far more visually persuasive?

Look, the answer is that nothing is stopping that yet. One of the reasons I wrote this book—and I hope when you read the book you don’t see me as a blind evangelist for this technology—is to let people know that this stuff is going to be more powerful, and let’s think about it now.

I just gave a talk at one of the largest technology companies in the world, one very active in the virtual reality space, and I had the entire VR team for this huge company here in the Valley. And I said to them, “Imagine you can go back in time and erase the mistakes that we’ve made on social media and smartphones. You could go back and prevent them. I want this moment to stand out because I feel that we’re here.” And what I begged the engineers in the room to do—I actually turned specifically to the 25 engineers, and said—“I want you guys to make it so that virtual reality will never work in a moving care. I want you to embed it in the hardware. It can literally not work if a car is moving. I know you guys can figure it out; the smartest engineers on Earth are working for this company.”

Why are we not so outraged that people are killing other people because they’re texting and driving? Why do we put up with this? It’s stunning to me that the culture has evolved to allow this to happen. I mean if I lost a loved one, God forbid, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night, because it’s such a solvable problem. Had the smartphone companies done something about that in the beginning, we wouldn't be here. There’s so many deaths each year due to distracted driving, and I want to solve that in advance in VR.

ENTER: I can’t imagine people putting on a helmet while they’re driving any more than putting a paper bag over their head. But what about self driving cars?

I want to push back on your first point, because the one data point we have on this is a video game called Pokemon Go, an augmented reality game. There’s a lot of people that crashed their cars playing it. There’s one funny case because nobody got hurt. Somebody playing Pokemon Go while they were driving, and crashing into a cop car. They are going to do it. I am telling you they are going to do it. I can’t be strong enough on this one. We need to solve this problem.

On self-driving cars, there’s a lot of work here at Stanford. We’ve got a huge car research center,  and I work with them, because everyone’s trying to figure out what you’re going to do inside this self-driving car. So far, the challenge has been that the car is moving in one direction and you’ve got to make the vestibular cues in VR match what the car is doing, otherwise you get very dizzy. I’m not saying it’s not a solvable problem, but I’ve put a VR in a self-driving car it’s pretty brutal on the inner ear.

ENTER: How can parents start to prepare for what’s going to be happening with their kids in VR? What do you think parents will be able to do and start thinking about in the next couple of years?

I co-authored a report for Common Sense Media, coming out at the end of March 2018. It’s literally a 50 page document that tells parents what VR is, what we know as it relates to the developing mind of a child, and tips on safety. It’s written in a way that’s not alarmist, but careful. We tried not to freak people out, but the answer, to be really quick about it, is moderation and supervision. I have a 6 year old daughter. She’s done VR three or four times I think, and never for more than two or three minutes. Now, we know that kids love this stuff, right? So my daughter constantly says, “Daddy when are you going to bring that hat back?” And obviously with kids and tablets you see that it certainly is a draw for them. But one thing, if you want to read this or link to it for your readers, is a piece I wrote for Slate:  Eight Rules to Help You Stay Safe in Virtual Realtity. So: A little bit; and Be there with them.

I think VR is great for things you can’t do in the real world. Things are impossible. Flying, turning into an animal, all these kind of amazing experiences. I don’t like VR for things that you wouldn’t do in the real world. And what I mean by that is if there’s some activity that if you did it in the real world, you wouldn’t like yourself, you wouldn’t be able to look your loved ones in the eye, you wouldn’t be able to look at yourself in the mirror. These are things like murder that maybe you probably shouldn’t do it in VR.

ENTER: In immersive or interactive reality, people put their own bodies into the field, which will eventually allow for sort of a reverse digital mapping of participants’ bodies, which kind of goes a step beyond facial recognition. What new privacy and personal safety questions are raised by the VR revolution?

JB: Yeah… I just took a walk on campus with somebody that really just pushed me hard to think about this. We do a lot of work on what’s called body language. So the difference between VR and smartphone is, the smartphone reveals to anyone who wants to know where you are, if you’re talking, what you’re doing on your phone. VR gives you all that, but it also gives you body language. In order to render the scene, that is to draw what you’re supposed to see and hear, you’ve got to track the body movement. And that can get dumped to a file at 90 frames a second.

We’ve done a lot of work asking the questions, what can you predict about somebody, based on the way they’re walking, or how their head is turned? And it turns out that the answer is, a lot. You can predict if somebody’s enjoying what they’re doing. You can predict if somebody’s learning, based on how they’re moving their body, based on the way they’re moving their hands and their head. There’s a wealth of data in body language that is untapped. An unprecedented amount of information is going to be available that has never been available before.

If you think of people like Paul Ekman, who does lots of work on coding what your face is doing so that he can figure out if you’re lying or not. That’s done either by hand, or by computer vision algorithms that have to figure out what’s going on with your body. With VR it’s all measured automatically, and it has to be measured to make the system work. So there’s going to be so much data on your body. That’s something to think about: Do I want to let these companies know what my body is doing?

ENTER: Final question: what ethical considerations should be used to guide VR? If you were to draw the rules, what would five of those top rules be?

JB: Well, the golden rule is what I just told you: VR is great for something that you can’t do, not good for something that you’d feel about had you done it in the real world. To me, that feels like Rule #1. Rule #2 …  Well, we have a 20 minute rule in the lab, which is that you go in for 20 minutes, take out, have a drink of water, touch a wall, if you feel like you have to go back in, that’s fine, but at least connect with the world a bit. Rule #3 is going to sound like a small one, but it’s actually massive. If you’re going to go in VR, remove sharp objects from the area, remove pets from the area—they don’t know you can’t see them. The field just had its first death in virtual reality, reported by Moscow News Wire, was playing a video game and fell into plate glass table and bled to death. We don’t want that happening, so clear the area.

No driving in VR, that’s an easy #4. And Rule #5 would be, manage your digital footprint. Do you want to give away your body language? I guess the rule would be, take care to protect your body language data. You’re tracking data. And I don’t know how to follow that rule yet. But I’m working on it.



About Jeremy Bailenson 

Bailenson is founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, Thomas More Storke Professor in the Department of Communication, Professor (by courtesy) of Education, Professor (by courtesy) Program in Symbolic Systems, a Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment, and a Faculty Leader at Stanford’s Center for Longevity. He earned a B.A. cum laude from the University of Michigan in 1994 and a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from Northwestern University in 1999. He spent four years at the University of California, Santa Barbara as a Post-Doctoral Fellow and then an Assistant Research Professor.

Bailenson studies the psychology of Virtual Reality (VR), in particular how virtual experiences lead to changes in perceptions of self and others. His lab builds and studies systems that allow people to meet in virtual space, and explores the changes in the nature of social interaction. His most recent research focuses on how VR can transform education, environmental conservation, empathy, and health.


Jeff Greenwald
Jeff is a best-selling author, photographer, and monologist.