By Jaclyn Seelagy
UCLA Law Review Discourse
With the release of Oculus Rift, followed closely by the HTC Vive, it seems the virtual reality revolution is finally on its way. Several companies either have released their own versions of virtual reality headsets or intend to soon, virtual reality experiences have started appearing at film festivals, and McDonald’s has made a Happy Meal box that turns into a low-cost cardboard virtual reality headset. While mainstream success of virtual reality has yet to be fully realized, reports already coming in on the newest high-end virtual reality products suggest that the technology for effective immersion is already here.
One word that comes up often in discussions about virtual reality achievements is “presence.” Presence is the feeling of being, well, present, in the virtual environment. The theory goes, if the quality of the depiction of the environment is high enough, and more importantly if the tracking system to allow you to “look around” by turning your head is responsive enough, the headset tricks your brain into feeling like you are really there. Whatever your conscious mind knows, effective presence can make you forget or doubt: that the wall in front of you is not solid, that the face you see in the simulated mirror is not yours, that a zombie is not trying to bite you.
Current technology, of course, focuses on sight and sound to create that feeling. A headset with headphones can make you see and hear whatever it wants you to, simply by providing the sight and sound. We are not (yet) plugging ourselves into the Matrix, with full sensory input including touch, smell, and taste. Current virtual reality technology creates an exciting, often very convincing, illusion—but it is inherently limited, and is not quite a match for actual, natural, physical reality.
Yet blurring that line between virtual and real is the goal of virtual reality. We do not have the technology to touch a virtual wall and feel the temperature, the texture, and the firmness, to be unable to go through the wall that is not actually there . . . yet. People are working on adding to virtual reality, incorporating more senses, more sensations, more reality. Creating a fully immersive virtual reality system capable of being indistinguishable from (non-virtual) reality is not just a fantasy; for some, like virtual reality company Oculus VR, it is a very real quest. Someday soon, reality will no longer have a monopoly on tangibility.
So at what point does virtual reality have enough in common with reality for traditional distinctions from the physical to blur? For an act performed through an avatar to be treated as one performed in physical space? Given the often less-than-civil interactions of anonymous Internet users, how blurred can the line become between physical and virtual violence? At what point is the appearance of danger or harm—one that is realistic enough to give the user a sense of presence—sufficient to be treated as genuine danger or harm? And when we have reached that point, could, and more importantly should, an act of virtual violence be considered a crime?
Picture: ALLvet (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons