All advances in technology, since the mastery of fire, bring benefits and risks. AR/VR users are not exempt from this condition. Risks can be assessed on several levels starting with the intrinsic risks of how the hardware is used. Using VR hardware removes the wearer from being connected to her physical environment and substitutes and replaces the stimuli that the brain is processing with VR images as if it were the actual physical environment. The effect can be that the wearer is at risk of injury due to walking into real, visible objects, tripping over obstacles, losing their sense of balance due to VR scenes not matching their actual physical surroundings, or responding to a virtual situation that can be injurious to them or bystanders in the real world. Countless online videos adequately demonstrate these effects to the apparent amusement of the viewing public.
According to a KPMG report (KPMG, 2016) a $20 billion estimated annual loss by 2020 is possible. KPMG assesses the emerging risk landscape into four categories: Health, Information Security, Behavioral and Privacy. Risks of this nature will accrue liability to one or another party.
Virtual reality has the great promise to advance many types of medical and psychological treatments. The technology, known as Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy, is used for treatment of phobias and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) despite limited research to show its efficacies. (Parsons, 2006) However, physical accidents from playing VR and AR games will continue to occur and, as the technology proliferates, these incidents will also scale. The risks from motion sickness, eye strain, and seizures must be considered in possible health consequences. One noted issue concerns vergence-accommodation. In your normal eye function of viewing the world, your eye first points the eyeballs (vergence) and then focuses the lenses of your eyes (accommodation) on an object. In modern VR headsets, your eye remains focused at a fixed distance, the display screen, but they converge on the objects in a virtual distance (Gent, 2016).
Mental and behavioral health effects are significant. The research on the desensitization effects from extensive violent video game play has been a subject of study for several decades. There is conclusive evidence that it leads to increased aggressive behavior although no links to increased criminal behavior have been found. (APA, 2015) The immersive nature of Virtual Reality to simulate severe stress conditions has been shown in studies of combat medic training with Virtual Reality-Stress Inoculation Training (VR-SIT)(Stetz, 2008). Such studies validate the very real stress reactions attainable with VR. This and other studies have shown that relaxation and stress management techniques can be learned effectively through VR induced stress reactions and combined deliberate practice of stress reduction activities. The effect is to train combat medics to effectively manage their stress response during highly stressful combat scenarios. The proven ability to artificially induce extreme levels of stress can have severe psychological and stress related health effects in users of VR.
Hardware, Software and Data Security Risks
Beyond these seemingly obvious physical risks we must consider the more abstract risks. Reasonable consideration must be given to security risks. These are, after all, computers connected to the Internet and vulnerable to hacking. It is possible to capture critical information of sensitive environments through the various device sensors, such as in the case of augmented reality hardware like the Phab2 or Hololens. Tsai states “like any connected device that’s part of the Internet of Things, some VR platforms will likely be designed without essential security mechanisms” (Tsai, 2016, Page 1).
The issue of privacy in data and metadata are popular discussions in the context of the Internet and Social Media. Many users are unaware that photographs posted on Facebook can carry GPS metadata on the posters location. Many social media games are “free” simply because the user is, perhaps unknowingly, agreeing to allow the provider access to their friend lists and personal profile data. By tagging your friends faces in social media posts Artificial Intelligence algorithms are able to build a better library of names to more accurately drive facial recognition, which can then be applied for other commercial or security purposes. When even secure data repositories of US State Department cables were breached by hackers in 2010 (Rogers, 2010), it indicates a clear risk of privacy being compromised through any computer. AR/VR systems are simply another vulnerable computer system for hackers to target.
VR carries its own new opportunities for privacy risks. The immersive experiences are shown to be effective for deliberate therapeutic psychological conditioning (Stetz, 2008) which clearly creates a risk that subconscious psychological conditioning could be part of some VR experiences. In this way, it could induce participants to reveal unintended personal details when queried shortly after or during an intense emotional experience. VR headsets currently on the market collect information about user’s location and can know your involuntary eye responses and gaze persistence during VR use (Korolov, 2016). This type of information can reveal significant personality traits to the companies that make the hardware and software.
Augmented Reality has already demonstrated its potential to create privacy risks. The discontinuing of Google Glass is attributed in part to privacy issues raised during beta testing. Users of Google Glass earned the moniker “Glassholes” for their unwelcome intrusive presence in public settings, prompting bars and restaurants to ban wearers. Microsoft’s Hololens will likely contend with similar concerns if it becomes a more widely used product.