October 12, 2014
As the technology that underpins virtual reality develops and the experiences become increasingly more real, I’ve been pondering a particularly morbid thought: When will we have the first VR-induced death? Will a realistic rocket launcher blast in Team Fortress 2 or VR version of Silent Hill give you a heart attack? Will watching the chase sequence in Casino Royale in full VR 3D pump enough adrenaline into your system that your heart beat becomes arrhythmic, eventually leading to death? Will a a VR experience be so realistic that you get so swept up in the moment that you run into a wall or jump out a window?
I’ve always been fascinated by the interrelationship of real and virtual worlds, and how technological advancement has brought them steadily closer and closer together until it can be very hard to discern the virtual from the real. The simplest virtual worlds — those created in your head with your imagination, perhaps with the aid of a good book — are very easily differentiated from reality (by most humans, anyway). Early digital virtual worlds, like EverQuest or Discworld MUD, started to blur the lines with persistence, graphics, and other interactive elements that trigger very real-world reactions (both physical and psychosomatic). And now, as we move into an era of ultra-high-resolution displays, 3D audio, and advanced AI, it’s possible to create some very real virtual worlds indeed.
I don’t think we’ve yet seen someone actually scared to death by a modern 3D/VR setup, but it’s only a matter of time. The precedent hascertainly been set over the last few years, though, especially when it comes to MMOs and other “grindy” games — there have been a handful of cases of people dying of exhaustion because they neglected their basic needs (food, sleep, exercise). In some cases, these people had some kind of underlying condition that made such physically and emotionally intensive experiences more likely to cause death — but as the technology becomes ever more immersive, and designers and architects create games and virtual worlds that are indiscernible from the real thing, I think VR death will be a somewhat regular occurrence.
Even if you don’t agree that VR will scare people to death, at the very least I think we can agree that full VR experiences will be incredibly absorbing. If an MMO like World of Warcraft or Lineage can keep people sitting down for days on end, VR will up the ante considerably. I’m not saying that people will start dropping like flies as soon as the first immersive VR experiences become readily available, but there will definitely be more deaths from exhaustion and users generally not looking after their physical and emotional needs.
This is before we consider the other inevitable VR-related problems that will be caused by misuse of the technology, irresponsible developers, and dozens of other indirect issues. If an iPod and some headphones can distract someone enough that they walk into the path of some traffic or an oncoming train, imagine the perils of using VR outside the safety of room; even wandering around your house could be dangerous. Despite the relatively low-quality VR produced by Oculus Rift, there are already reports of people experiencing the odd sensation of a fraying, blurring divide between real and virtual that persists for a few minutes after detaching from a VR device. A curious and/or malevolent game developer, after getting a taste for the immersion provided by VR, could easily craft an experience that’s intended to cause mental or physical harm.
Indirectly, but still significantly, a whole host of issues might arise if a significant proportion of the populace are constantly strapped into their VR setup. There have already been a few sad cases of parents being so engrossed by a virtual world that their baby/child died from neglect — or worse – and I’m sure it’ll only get worse as advanced VR tech matures.