"It is quite likely that there will be a moral panic around virtual reality at some point."
Catherine Allen, VR creator and curator, spoke at Orama, the immersive journalism festival held in London on 1 April, addressing the importance of the media industry being transparent about their VR experiments to help the public understand the medium and their intentions.
"This power that we are all so excited about right now can be used in all sorts of ways, and we shouldn't assume it's going to be used for what our idea of good is."
Virtual reality has been coined by many as the ultimate empathy machine, enabling publishers to transport audiences to different situations and make them engage with stories like never before. But it's possible this immersive medium can be used to encourage negative behaviour, thus having detrimental implications on society and its values.
Allen explained that the rise of media coverage on virtual reality, combined with the lack of research done on the effects of this new technology, may result in VR being seen as a threat to society, ultimately causing a rapid build up of public concern surrounding it.
"For example, virtual reality porn is getting a huge amount of coverage in UK press right now," she said, noting that the Daily Mail has already covered this issue 17 times.
There might be some valid concerns, but we should address them to stop them from being blown out of proportion and killing a potentially incredible industry – we need to reflect on ourselves earlyCatherine Allen, Orama
An additional trigger to moral panic, Allen explained, could be the fact that violence in VR is so life-like that the sense of presence can make it seem like you are actually carrying out these actions in the real world.
"In fact, a study commissioned by Wiggin found that 59 per cent of UK adults are concerned about the potential reduced sense of right and wrong in VR, with 58 per cent worried they will become addicted, and 55 per cent fearing that VR will affect their behaviour.
"We just don't know what can happen. There might be some valid concerns, but we should address them to stop them from being blown out of proportion and killing a potentially incredible industry – we need to reflect on ourselves early."
So, other than being aware of the ethical issues of virtual reality storytelling, what can publishers do now to try to prevent public concern around this medium, something which could ultimately change the production and consumption of VR material?
"It is all about connection to the audience as early as possible – not making something in a vacum and then putting it out just to say 'hey look what we made'," said Allen.
"Test the idea really early on with your audience before you've even made it, see what their response is, see how it sits with them and how they feel, and keep testing."
For example, before making 'Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel', a VR experience designed to take viewers back to the streets of Dublin to witness the 1916 rising, she conducted surveys about how the audience felt about the issue, and it being told through VR. She also encouraged people to be active consumers, letting producers know what they thought about it.
"If you provide them with a space to air their feelings, you can see whether it pushes any panic buttons early on.
"Maybe you want to do something that pushes panic buttons, but at least be aware of what you are doing and the effects it could have on them."
Although the public might feel more comfortable once they have tried VR for themselves and got used to the new medium, Allen pointed out that the journalism industry should build precautions and awareness of moral panic into their practice to make sure that what they are doing is ethically robust.
Free daily newsletter
- The Guardian's latest virtual reality experience shows viewers what life in the UK is like for asylum seekers
- Journalism 360 Challenge funds 11 projects that explore best practices for immersive storytelling in news
- Google funds 107 projects in the third round of the Digital News Initiative Fund
- The Guardian uses research in neural development to let audiences see through the eyes of infants
- Latest virtual reality project from the Guardian lets viewers experience the first year of life