What happens to us when we interact with an avatar in a virtual environment? How can we know who is "behind" this avatar, and whether this experience will influence our behavior in the "natural" world? Those are some possible issues we explored from an ethical point of view within the VERE project.

Published 9 March 2016
Updated 9 March 2016

Guest blogpost by Dr. Michael Madary, postdoctoral research assistant at Johannes Gutenberg-Universit├Ąt Mainz and involved in the Future and Emerging Technologies  project VERE (Virtual Embodiment and Robotic Re-Embodiment)

The main goal of the VERE project, which has been running for 5,5 years and just finished, has been to explore illusions of embodiment, in which subjects feel as if they own and control a body that is not their own, such as an avatar in virtual reality (VR) or a robot at a remote location. The project investigated the illusions themselves, and also developed new beneficial applications of those illusions. Just to name a few, some studies performed during the course of the project included the effect of embodiment on implicit racial bias, on gender violence, on empathy (for parents interacting with children), and on people’s perception of their own bodies  (which may be interesting for patients with eating disorders, for example).

Illusory ownership of an avatar in virtual realityIllusory ownership of an avatar in virtual reality
Osimo et al. 2015 doi:10.1038/srep13899

This was still FET pioneering research (novel and high risk), with VR being used mainly in research laboratories. However, we can expect VR to be widely adopted by the general public as the technology advances quickly and the required equipment becomes affordable commercially (head-mounted displays, suits with body sensors, and software to create the virtual environment). Therefore, one of our top priorities was to investigate ethical risks that could possibly arise with the technology being used by patients or the general public. Together with Prof. Thomas Metzinger, we organised two ethics workshops. We have just published an article with a first list of those risks along with recommendations for minimizing them. Here are some selected recommendations for the use of VR by the general public:

  • We need studies and further research into the psychological effects of long-term immersion. These studies should observe subjects over an extended period of time to monitor long-term effects.
  • We call for focused research into the question of what may be lost in cases of distant social interactions that are enabled through VR. For example, what are the risks if visits to those who are sick or immobile are increasingly replaced by “virtual visits”?  How might frequent social interaction in virtual environments influence our understanding of ourselves as social agents?
  • Avatar ownership and individuation will be an important issue for regulatory agencies to consider.  There are strong reasons to place restrictions on the way in which avatars can be used, such as protecting the interests and privacy of individuals who strongly identify with their own particular avatar on social networks. On the other hand, these restrictions may prove impractical to implement and may unnecessarily limit personal creative freedom. Regulators must strike a rational balance between these concerns.
  • There is evidence that advertising tactics using embodiment technology, such as VR, can have a powerful unconscious influence on behavior. Users should be made aware of this evidence.

It is important to note that we have generated only a first list of concerns and recommendations.  We hope to refine and expand these recommendations continuously in collaboration with the scientific community.