Case Study: Where Virtual Reality and Social Networks Converge

Project Title: Reverie
Project Description:
This three and a half year EU project, called Reverie (now concluded), was designed to examine the convergence of virtual reality and social networks. The work was accompanied by an ethical scan of the virtual reality/social network horizon, conducted in DCU and resulting in two publications in ethics journals.

The study considered the ethical implications of the technology development surrounding virtual reality and social networks.

Project Status: Started 2013. Concluded 2016.
The following are some key issues that arose from the research.

Personal Avatars and Personal Responsibility
Virtual environments are designed to mimic real world environments such as campuses, homes or classrooms. These environments are frequently populated with user avatars, or personal avatars.
There is great potential for these avatars to extend the reach of individual expertise in learning environments, for example; a trainee dancer could receive instruction from a virtual Dame Margot Fontayne, programmed to apply the master’s teaching styles without the intercession of the master.
Avatars such as these apply artificial intelligence technology: they are not simply acting out direct instructions. In other words, they are not just puppets of the human who created them.
Key question: Who is responsible if the avatar behaves inappropriately, engaging, for example, in bullying behaviour, in age-inappropriate communication, in manipulation of other avatars?

Virtual Environments and Well-Being
Key question: How do we protect users from becoming too absorbed in the virtual environment?

Key question: How do we create environments that are not so addictive as to pose a threat to the freedom and psychological well being of the user?

Virtual Environments and Social Marginalisation
Key question: If virtual environments confer advantages on users from the perspective of access to learning, for example, how do we ensure that those without access to expensive hardware are not locked out of the virtual environment?

Key question: What risks are inherent in virtual environment development when it comes to social isolation and marginalisation of vulnerable groups, such as older people, people with disabilities and the socioeconomically disadvantaged?

Key question: From a technology perspective how do we develop VR working from the assumption that not everyone has access to VR goggles, motion capture facilities, VR suites etc.?

The researchers in this case proposed that low cost and high cost options for different users should be considered at the development phase.

The Limits of the Virtual
Another issue to arise was that of self-censorship. An avatar operating in the place of a user in a meaningful, interactive environment is likely to self-censor, in the knowledge that all exchanges are captured.

Key question: How realistic can a virtual environment really be, under those circumstances? What are the limits of virtual interaction?


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