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VR industry hasn’t bothered to do safety research

Virtual avatars in VR.

Episode two of this season’s Black Mirror, ‘Playtest’, sparked the question by many including Tyler Wilde, Executive Editor at PC Gamer, to ask the question, “Is there a line where virtual reality becomes dangerous, and will we stop when we find it?”

I don’t want to be a party pooper, but it appears the VR industry is treating safety as an afterthought rather than addressing it proactively. There is not enough publicly-accessible research in our hands on how VR content definitively affects the brain or body except for the mostly anecdotal comments about cases of nausea and, of course, the spectacle of people falling over wires.

About two years ago, UCLA released research that found our brains do not react to virtual reality in the same way we had thought. “The pattern of activity in a brain region involved in spatial learning in the virtual world is completely different than when it processes activity in the real world,” said Mayank Mehta, the research lead for the study at the UCLA. One of the main takeaways was that these findings should prompt the industry to further investigate and research the effect of VR on neurons.

Fast forward almost two years, and the Guardian publishes an article on the same topic showing that not much seems to have changed. “We haven’t really yet got to the stage where people have been using virtual reality for prolonged periods of time — over, for example, periods of weeks or months — to identify with any clear certainty any long-term effects of virtual reality.” Sarah Sharples, professor of human factors at the University of Nottingham and president of the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors, told the Guardian.

In an article published earlier this month on Live Science about the safe use of VR by children, Marientina Gotsis, director of the Creative Media & Behavioral Health Center at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, said this: “We do not have enough data on the safety of current VR technology for children, so the sparsity of research data and what we know about neuroplasticity [the brain’s ability to reorganize itself] and children does not make me comfortable to recommend what is available now as is.”

There is a regular stream of news bulletins about how VR can help in the case of phobias, mental illnesses like depression, and even as sex therapy. But what about the potential flipside where specific experimental content, prolonged use, or usage of certain technology, actually adversely affect us psychologically?

The recurrent advice I keep coming across is to follow our common sense, be sensible about our own behavior, and to take note of the side effect guidelines posted by hardware makers, such as the one provided for the Oculus Rift. For the most part, the industry appears to be placing the onus of responsibility on the user by putting precautionary notes into product descriptions such as disclaimers warning pregnant women not to use the device.

VR Bound has published some guidelines for parents who may be understandably concerned about exposing their children to this immersive technology. “Until the industry conducts more research into the effects of VR on children, you’ll need to mostly rely on your common sense and maternal instincts,” reads the page. It also mentions a report that warns about prolonged use in 3D environments causing “strabismus, the abnormal alignment of the eyes or the condition of having a squint.”

I find the situation troubling because I expect the big hardware and software players to be responsible for making this research more readily available before hundreds of thousands of headsets are brought into living rooms around the world. There is currently such a frantic push to jumpstart the industry that there doesn’t seem to be time to check whether we’re unnecessarily putting ourselves in harm’s way.

“Unless and until there is some comprehensive statute or regulation on VR or software liability (exceedingly unlikely at the moment), “the system” will hash out individual cases in the courts.” Jesse Woo, a contributor to a recent white paper on the legal implications of AR/VR from the University of Washington Tech Policy Lab, told me. “My guess is that absent some seriously negligent or malicious actions, sufficient warning labels will protect most firms acting as media companies; it’s a different conversation if you want to talk about using VR as a treatment device though.”

The general attitude I come across in the industry is that it’s okay to turn a somewhat blind eye to the possible repercussions of all of this, particularly in relation to how our brains change with long-term use, or neuroplasticity, which no one really has a clear idea about. In fact, I can instantly feel thousands of brows furrow by my even raising this is an issue, but the question stands: Shouldn’t users of VR have the right to make an informed decision?

Amir-Esmaeil Bozorgzadeh is the co-founder at Virtuleap, a sandbox for creative developers to showcase their VR concepts to the world. He is the European Partner at Edoramedia, a games pubisher and digital agency with its headquarters in Dubai. Follow him on Twitter: @whiteboxamir.

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Ms. A. C. Kennedy
My name is Ms A C Kennedy and I am a Health practitioner and Consultant by day and a serial blogger by night. I luv family, life and learning new things. I especially luv learning how to improve my business. I also luv helping and sharing my information with others. Don't forget to ask me anything!

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Welcome back to Video IRL, where several of our editors talk about what they've been watching in their spare time. This month we're kicking things off with some seasonally-appropriate horror fare, that you can catch right away on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Then it's time for a Gundam throwback before Kris Naudus points out a couple of YouTube food channels perfect for binge eating or binge watching.

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To get into the Halloween spirit, I've been watching at least one horror movie a day since the end of September -- the lower the budget, the better. Problem is, so many of the American low-budget or indie horror offerings on Amazon and Netflix are crappy Paranormal Activity clones, cheap-thrill gore-fests or uninspired found-footage "documentaries." Whether it's by design or coincidence, I've found that French horror movies have held my attention the most lately. Specifically, 2016's Raw, as well as Them, from ten years prior. They're more psychological thrillers than straight-up horror, but that didn't stop me from being more on edge while watching them one afternoon than I was during A Haunting in Saginaw, Michigan, late at night. Both start with a car crash, but they couldn't finish any more differently.

Raw, recently added to Netflix, tells the tale of a vegetarian girl in her first week at a prestigious veterinary school. During a hazing ritual, she's forced to eat a raw rabbit kidney. She immediately gets sick, throws up and wakes herself up that night scratching a full-body rash to near bleeding. This bout with food poisoning is just the beginning, though, and soon protagonist Justine finds out she has a taste for forbidden fruit. As the remaining 70-ish minutes unfolded, I lost track of how many times I clasped my hands over my mouth, agape in shock, to stifle my shouts of "OHMYGODWHATTHEFUCKISEVENHAPPENING?!"

But French director Julia Ducournau balances every body-horror scene either with something pedestrian twisted into being unsettling (like a horse on a treadmill) or with something that makes you ask how far Justine can go before someone confronts her about her new diet. And those questions keep coming right until the credits roll. I can't say I enjoyed watching Raw, but it was a hell of a ride.

The same goes for Them, currently streaming on Amazon Prime. Its focus is narrow, centering on a young couple living in a cavernous farmhouse, terrorized over the course of a night by unseen horrors. The camera never quite gives away who (or what) the perpetrators are, and revealing the twist would be a sin. As with Raw, its atmosphere and overall creepiness won me over straightaway. The scariest part? Realizing that I've probably driven past a shot like the final scene countless times and not thought twice about it. If you're willing to read subtitles, both of these should make you shiver and scream more than The Conjuring 2 on HBO Go could ever hope to.

Mobile Suit Gundam The 08th MS Team

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I'd heard that a lot of anime had left Hulu, but I scanned their selection anyway looking for classic shows I'd missed, like the original Mobile Suit Gundam. They don't have that -- but they did have a series I didn't finish the first time it aired on Toonami, the 1996 classic Gundam side story The 08th MS Team. Unlike the franchise's other show released the year before, the massively successful Gundam Wing, 08th ditches the brand's typical pretty-boys-in-unbeatable-robots for a grounded and sobering story about the people who get caught up in wars -- desperate soldiers, civilians and guerrillas alike. It's dirty, honest, utterly humane and gorgeously animated.

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Feast of Fiction / Binging with Babish

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Back in March, I came home from a trip only to discover that my oven didn't work. The cooking gas in my building had been shut off due to a leak. My building management seemed to be on it, so I made do with a combination of microwavables, toaster oven and Seamless. Unfortunately, weeks and months went by, calls to the city were made and permits were issued, but, even as I write this in October, gas still has not been restored to my building. My landlords eventually threw their collective hands in the air and began installing electric ranges in every apartment, so a few weeks ago I was finally able to cook for myself again.

I am so jazzed to be able to make food. Hot food! Scrambled eggs! Steak! Cookies! I started reading food blogs and cookbooks, and shopping to refill my pantry. I'm halfway through Kenji Alt-Lopez's The Food Lab, a huge 900-page hardcover that talks about the science of how food cooks. On the lighter side, I've also been reading food-themed comics like Delicious in Dungeon and Food Wars. And the latter title (which is also an anime) ended up sucking me into a YouTube hole of food videos that I've been obsessed with ever since.

You see, the very first chapter of Food Wars features the "Gotcha" Pork Roast, a bacon-wrapped potato loaf that hero Soma Yukihira makes to save his family restaurant. It looks pretty tasty, so I searched for recipes and pics online and stumbled onto Jimmy Wong and Ashley Adams' Feast of Fiction, a series that demonstrates how to make various foods seen in cartoons, video games and comics. If you ever wanted to taste Steven Universe's beloved Cookie Cat ice cream sandwiches or Kirby's super-spicy curry, there's an episode for you. One thing I really enjoy is how they also incorporate crafts into it, showing how to make paper wrappers for your Reptar chocolate bars or genuine-looking Ecto Cooler Hi-C boxes.

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"IRL" is a recurring column in which the Engadget staff run down what they're buying, using, playing and streaming.