An Ethical Framework for Research and Commercial Use of Virtual Reality

Neurons HQ

October 19, 2017

What kind of warning messages should a VR headset include? Companies entering the virtual market are going to struggle with safety issues and regulations that don’t exist yet. The truth is, we’re only scratching the surface, and there is still a lot to learn, but the good news is that we can anticipate this and prevent, with good research and transparent practices.

That is what Michael Madary and Thomas Metzinger defend in the first code of ethics for research and commercial use of VR, which gives concrete recommendations to minimize potential risks.

Targeted advertising collecting biometric data and the use of Neuromarketing

VR equipment will likely get really good at collecting biometric data to enhance user experience. This includes eye movements, facial expressions, and posture. However, this data can be used to attain levels of targeted advertising. Research at our lab has found that forward-leaning postures are indicative of purchase intentions.

More obviously, using the rich virtual context will create more powerful experiences that will affect consumers in deeper ways. VR is able to generate an immersive experience of being in the virtual world and being the avatar that is within it. The tourism industry is already using this to engage immerse customers in paradise destinations. “Commercials in VR could even feature images of the target audience himself or herself using the product.” Says Madary. This can have long-lasting effects in memory via the close phenomenological experience of the avatar as the self. It's all in your head!

Subjects that were given superman’s superpowers in VR showed more altruistic behavior afterwards.

The lasting effects of an illusion of embodiment

VR technology targets the mechanisms by which human beings identify with themselves. A number of studies have already pointed that what the virtual avatar does can be perceived as one’s own actions. Featuring an avatar in the edge of a deep pit, a skyscraper or a cliff immediately increases signs of stress in the subject, making her feel that she can fall. This that has been named the Virtual Pit by Meehan and colleagues (2002).

These effects last beyond the experience and impact the person’s real-world interactions. If aggressive video games make children more aggressive (albeit that there is no scientific evidence for this), it is easy to imagine a similar outcome in VR. Furthermore, its immersive nature opens opportunities for mental and behavioral manipulations that may include commercial, religious, political interests.

But this type of behavioral plasticity can also be used in beneficial ways. Rosenberg et al. (2013) found that subjects that were given superman’s superpowers in VR showed more altruistic behavior afterward. In the same year, Peck et al. found that subjects who were embodied in a dark-skinned avatar showed a decrease in implicit racial bias, at least temporarily.

The authenticity of Virtual Social interactions

Facebook believes that in the next 10 years virtual reality will transform how people communicate and experience the world. Research conducted in our own labs found that people -especially introverts- can easily forge social relationships in virtual environments and feel comfortable establishing bonds in the new environment.

One of the remarkable findings of our research was the similarity of neural responses between the virtual and the face to face encounter. Nevertheless, it is easy to assume that something is lost in virtual social interactions.

There is a loss of authenticity, and many subtle communication cues are lost.

VR hardware can make a good with audiovisual representation of the world, but there are still few good examples of multi-sensory virtual stimulation.

We are already experiencing shallow forms of social interactions (Facebook friends), and the ways these will become more normal and culturally accepted is in hands of VR companies and consumers alike. As this becomes more widespread, one can expect a detrimental effect in our social lives, for example neglecting family visits, or a decreased motivation for face to face interactions. Especially alarming is the finding depression is more likely in older adults who have less social contact in person regardless of their amount of telephone, written, and email contact (Teo et al., 2015).


VR can reduce prejudices in the social context and facilitate social interactions. In the avatar world there are no races, genres or religion, the identities are infinite. Altruist behaviors can be induced, and great applications will likely expand across many sectors. But one must keep in mind the potential risks such as stress induced by a harmful virtual experience the behavioral changes that go beyond virtuality to affect reality.

In Neurons Inc we’ve been testing several applications of VR, AR and MR since 2013 and we own the largest database of neural data for testing these technologies. Our research focuses on social interaction, consumer adoption and market application of virtual technologies. To learn more, book a demo with us!

An Ethical Framework for Research and Commercial Use of Virtual Reality

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