Responsible uses of VR – the key principles

Thinking about the end user

Over the last decade we have seen the clear emergence and development of immersive experiences as a part of the UK’s arts and cultural sector. There is evident audience demand, and it is with without doubt that these experiences have the potential to be powerful and even profound. The influence a VR maker or exhibitor can have on their audience is substantial – it’s not just about the immediate physiological response, but also the ability to create long lasting memories. Think back to the last time you experienced VR – how did it make you feel? It is clear that the medium, whilst being technically ‘screen based’ is very different from other forms of screen-based media. For this reason, VR needs its own set of considerations when it comes to responsible exhibition and creation. Some of your intuition and ethical principles from other forms of media and art will transfer easily, however in many instances it pays to think afresh.

 

This article will delve into the ethical dimensions of VR from the perspective of end-users, providing organisations with some useful principles for responsible use. The outcome of this style of thinking, from the author’s own experience with thousands of audience members, is improved user trust, a deeper level of engagement and ultimately more ticket sales.

 

Let’s dive in:

 

1. VR is about simulation, and with this comes a different ethical axis

VR sets itself apart by making users active partakers in an experience. Whereas TV and film involve showing your audience a situation, VR involves them in it – via simulation – as participants. Even if there is no distinct interactivity, just the feeling of presence of being that space gives a sense of complicity in whatever is happening around them.

 

This means that users may feel differently about their experiences afterwards, because of that sense of complicity. Memories created in VR are not merely stories told but become personal experiences, entwined with one’s own identity. When users reflect on their VR encounters, it’s not a matter of remembering a narrative; it’s recalling an event that happened to them. This heightened sense of personal involvement highlights the unique ethical considerations that VR should require. When creators or exhibitors immerse users, they must recognise the potential moral weight users may subsequently carry from their VR experiences. This weight isn’t necessarily a bad thing – and can even be explored creatively – but it must be considered and acknowledged in your audience journey planning.

 

How might your organisation respond to this principle?

 

  • Consider ways to add critical distance

In order to properly immerse yourself in a VR experience, you must, to some extent, let go – and suspend disbelief. This is rewarding: letting go allows for powerful emotions or even deep empathy. This surrender, however can also reduce your critical distance, which makes it harder to critique the experience in the moment. Consider leaving an opportunity either within the VR experience itself or afterwards for audience members to step back and think critically about what they’ve just experienced, detaching themselves and considering questions about the topic or context as a whole.

 

  • Plan your process for in-person onboarding and offboarding

In-person guidance and support for users from VR hosts or stewards before and after VR experiences can help ease the transition between the virtual and physical worlds. Providing a structured introduction and debriefing session can help users contextualise their experiences and address any emotional or psychological impact.

 

2. Acknowledge user vulnerability and the subsequent need for duty of care

 

The impact of VR’s unique quality of simulation and full immersion, as explored above, equates to the need for a heightened duty of care from creators and exhibitors. When a person puts on a VR headset they are by nature physically vulnerable as they have somewhat sacrificed their senses in the physical world to that in the virtual world. As an organisation providing the experience you should respect the sacrifice your audience members have made, the trust they have put in you, and honour that.

 

How might your organisation respond to this principle?

 

  • Proactively mitigate physical vulnerability

The act of wearing a VR headset effectively blinds users to their immediate physical surroundings, making them susceptible to potential accidents and disorientation. It is the equivalent of wearing a blindfold and noise cancelling headphones. If you search on YouTube for ‘falling over in VR’ or ‘VR fails’ you will see many examples of this. While these viral video clips are framed as amusing, they are a sign that duty of care is something organisations really do need to take seriously. Because of this vulnerability I would recommend a comprehensive physical duty of care plan and risk assessment, especially for experiences exhibited in location-based settings. This plan could include headset hygiene, furniture placement, and guidance on how users can avoid discomfort, nausea, or strain injuries during their VR journey.

 

  • Building trust through marketing materials

Users’ awareness of their vulnerability within a VR headset can sometimes deter them from even engaging with VR content in the first place. This apprehension may even exist on a subconscious level. Proactively addressing these concerns reaps significant rewards: it can even improve the diversity and breadth of your audience, as a wider range of people will feel comfortable with the technology. By clearly communicating the measures taken to ensure user safety, including rigorous headset cleaning protocols and physical care, creators and exhibitors can build trust with their audience.

 

  • If you are not the exhibitor, provide guidance for end users and/or exhibitors

For teams responsible for content but not for the exhibition of the experience, it can help to plan for how end users or exhibiting organisations can ensure physical safety themselves. Providing a guidance document, handbook video or webinar could be good ways to do this.

 

3. Don’t make assumptions on who your ‘natural’ audience will be

 

The future of VR is of course still very malleable, and while stereotypes might indicate otherwise, VR’s ‘natural’ audience is not confined to a single demographic like young people or avid gamers. VR has the potential to cater to really wide-ranging audiences. Fostering a broad, diverse audience base will help both the future of this medium and your organisation.

 

Based on the experiences of my company, Limina, we’ve observed that VR’s audience extends far beyond expectations, encompassing a broader, more mainstream, and surprisingly older demographic.

 

How might your organisation respond to this principle?

 

  • Audience research

Conduct audience research to identify potential user demographics and interests. Consciously avoid making assumptions on who your audience will be based on stereotypes, and pre-emptively talk to anyone who will be involved in the project to help them likewise park any unconscious and unhelpful assumptions.

 

When you choose your audience segments, consider what their drivers and motivations will be, and plan content that responds to this.

 

  • Encourage audience feedback

Actively engage with users to gather feedback and insights. Use this input to adapt and refine VR experiences to better meet the needs, motivations and expectations of your audience. Doing this iteratively and in partnership with universities was invaluable for my company Limina when we ran VR theatres.

 

  • Consider accessibility in the VR app and physical experience design

Prioritise accessibile features within VR experiences, and use your audience research to know their prior level of technology knowledge and confidence. This will mean users of varying abilities can engage comfortably.

 

By widening the user base of VR and challenging assumptions, your organisation be contributing to the medium’s overall growth and direction of travel – which is a big deal. After all, it is the users of any technology who will ultimately shape it.

 

VR’s unique qualities of simulation and presence set it apart from other media. This necessitates thoughtful consideration from creators and exhibitors to make sure that end users trust the experience they are engaging with. A core foundation of audience trust will take you far; conceptually, creatively and commercially. These principles have been developed over almost a decade of experience with VR audiences – I hope they are as helpful to you as they have been for Limina and the organisations we have worked with. There is still so much untapped potential that this medium offers.

About the author

Catherine Allen

 

Catherine is a BAFTA-winning, immersive media specialist and the founder of Limina Immersive. She has been responsible for a range of high profile digital entertainment products and has worked with major brands including Disney, Siemens and the BBC.

Catherine’s expertise spans across the fields of:

– Virtual reality 

– Augmented reality

– Industry inclusivity & diversity

Catherine Allen. A light skinned woman with curly blond hair

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