Week of 18 November 2019

Put your tin hat on

Virtual reality makes whole new worlds possible, and whole new ways of being human. That makes it an ethical minefield. Let’s take a Deep Dive. 

😱 The promise of virtual reality brings with it a whole lot of ethical concerns. They include privacy and mass surveillance; how it might change human cognition and behaviour; social isolation; child development; the possibility of virtual torture; the physical toil of wearing a headset, from repetitive stress injuries to nausea and disorientation to potential seizures; and the lifelike nature of the content, with the possibility, for instance, of desensitisation to violence. Plus it could be hacked.

♿️ VR could also lead to people, especially children, confusing the virtual and real worlds, dangerously overestimating their real-world abilities, or altering their real world behaviour based on their VR experiences.

✏️ The lack of oversight and regulation of such a new industry puts the onus on designers of VR experiences and the companies behind them to think about their potential impact and design them accordingly.

❓ But it’s hard to predict what the impact of VR will be, and therefore hard to design it ethically; the consequences, both positive and negative, could well be unintended ones.



“If you just look at the medium and what it’s doing, we are basically broadcasting human senses to your consciousness. We are duplicating perception.”
Chris Milk, founder of leading VR company Within, formerly Vrse




Physical VR sickness, similar to motion sickness, is sexist in its effects, according to a study in scientific journal Experimental Brain Research, affecting 77 percent of women but only 33 percent of men.


Consumer privacy and data security were the most commonly cited legal risks while developing immersive technology, by 61 percent of respondents, in a 2019 survey of startup founders and technology executives by law firm Perkins Coie and VR industry group the XR Association. It was only mentioned as a concern by 44 per cent of respondents in the equivalent survey a year earlier.

US$34.08 billion

The virtual reality market will be worth US$34.08 billion by 2023, up from US$5.12 billion in 2017, equivalent to 33.95 percent annual growth, according to research company MarketsandMarkets.


Almost 90 percent of VR headset users play games on theirs at least once a week, according to wireless market information company CCS Insight; almost a third have never used it for social media.


China leads the world in the implementation of VR in manufacturing, with 51 percent of companies using it, according to consulting firm Capgemini.


How much did Amnesty International see donations increase by after it launched the world’s first VR fundraising campaign, back in 2015, featuring a simulation of the Syrian city of Aleppo?

A. 11%
B. 16%
C. 21%

Scroll to the bottom of the email for the answer. 


The first functioning virtual reality technology dates back as far as 1957, when US inventor Morton Heilig patented the Sensorama, a sit down device like an old arcade video game featuring a stereoscopic display, a moving chair, sound, fans and even smells. He was aware of its potential, pitching it as an industrial and military training device. Sadly, he was unable to commercialise either the Sensorama or the Telesphere Mask, a startlingly modern-looking VR headset he invented in 1960.



5 Stories To Get You Up To Speed
  1. We Need To Look More Carefully Into The Long-Term Effects Of VR
  2. The Good And The Bad Of Escaping To Virtual Reality
    The Atlantic
  3. 'Real' Violence: Coming To Grips With The Ethics Of Virtual Reality Brutality
    The Guardian
  4. Here's What Happens To Your Body When You've Been In Virtual Reality For Too Long
    Business Insider
  5. 5 Fears About Virtual Reality That 'Westworld' Has Brought To The Fore


Where Are The Boundaries?: AR/VR Ethics & Policy
This panel discussion at Harvard Innovation Labs takes a close-up look at the ethical issues around VR, and how public policy can address them. 



1838 Sir Charles Wheatstone described 3D binocular vision and invented the stereoscope, which projects a different image into each of a user’s eyes.

1957 Morton Heilig created the Sensorama, a VR machine, following it three years later with the Telesphere Mask, the first headset.

1968 Computer scientist Ivan Sutherland created Sword of Damocles, a fully functioning, computer connected, head mounted VR display.

1975 Computer artist Myron Krueger presented Videoplace, the first interactive VR platform.

1985 Jaron Lanier founded VPL Research, the first company to sell VR goggles.

1995 Nintendo launched the Virtual Boy console, a commercial failure due to the poor user experience.

2007 Google introduced Street View.

2010 Palmer Luckey invented the Oculus Rift headset, kicking off the contemporary VR revolution.


The virtual becomes real

The number of active users of virtual reality devices has grown exponentially over the past few years, according to figures from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers—and there’s no reason to assume it won’t continue to do so.




Virtual reality
An entirely realistic, immersive environment in which a user feels physically present.

Motion tracking
Tracking the location of a device with sensors.

Open world exploration
Allowing users to view a VR environment from any perspective rather than predetermined viewpoints.

Refresh rate 
How quickly graphics are redrawn, affecting how realistic they appear to be.

Foveated rendering
Tracking eye movements so objects in the peripheral vision can be rendered at a lower rate.

Haptic feedback
Physical sensations in real life that make a VR experience more lifelike.

VR sickness
A close cousin of motion sickness, caused by the disconnect between what the eyes see and what the body feels.


The VR prophets and the VR profits

The Oracle 
Neal Stephenson
Perhaps the most prescient prediction of what a VR infused future could look like comes from speculative fiction writer Neal Stephenson, whose 1992 book Snow Crash featured the Metaverse, a VR internet similar to a multiplayer online game, in which actions sometimes have real world consequences.

The Lawmakers 
Thomas Metzinger and Michael Madary
Thomas Metzinger and Michael Madary of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz are at the forefront of philosophical debate about the ethics of VR. In 2016 their research led them to come up with the first code of conduct for virtual reality.

The Inventor
Palmer Luckey
Aged just 19, in 2012 Palmer Luckey invented Oculus Rift, the first mass market VR headset. His company Oculus VR was bought by Facebook in 2014, and in 2017 he founded Anduril Industries, which makes autonomous military drones and sensors.


Did you miss our Deep Dive on Asia’s war on plastic? Read it here.

Gen.T Spotlight

Three honourees to follow
Steve Zhao
Steve Zhao has made the Holodeck a reality. His Hong Kong-based company Sandbox VR, which allows people to play fully immersive VR games in groups, raised US$68 million in Series A funding, and has investors including Andreessen Horowitz, Katy Perry and Justin Timberlake.
Li Yi
A pioneer in commericalising VR and AR in Mainland China, Li Yi founded his company 51VR in January 2015. It integrates VR with artificial intelligence to produce new applications in industries such as real estate, automotive and education.


Zhang Daoning
More immersive VR experiences are possible thanks to Zhang Daoning’s company Nolo VR. Its Nolo CV1 toolkit, featuring two handheld controllers and a wearable tracker, allows users to interact seamlessly with their surroundings.



Go Crazy

If you’re keen to find out more about the future ethical implications of the VR revolution, here’s a book-length study of them.


Digital Nomadism

That's it for this issue. Have a productive week!

The Deep Dive is a weekly close-up look at an idea, issue or trend that’s shaping Asia’s future. This issue was written by Richard Lord, with production by Samantha Topp and Denise Ng. 

We’d love to know what you think of this issue, and future topics you’d like us to cover. Please send your comments to And if you missed it, don’t forget to check out last week’s Deep Dive, on the Greater Bay Area.

The answer to the quiz is B (16%).
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