Ethics in Technology and VR

Screen International's Tom Grater spoke to BAFTA Award-winning immersive media specialist Catherine Allen, following her keynote concerning ethics in VR.

Allen’s illuminating speech touched on key areas to consider when choosing to exhibit VR, as well as informing on the ethical challenges that VR creators face within the rapidly evolving industry.


As with cinema, VR can virtually transport users in to another realm. But the key difference is that with cinema, there is a very definite separation of space- there is the audience, and there is the screen.  VR experiences do not have such a definite separation. And this means that those who take part  can often have a deeper, more visceral response that can be harder to shake. People tend to remember a VR experience more clearly than when watching a film, because as humans, we remember things we did slightly more than we remember things we saw. And for creators (or ‘story-doers’, as Allen refers to them) it’s a gift- the opportunity to create an everlasting experience with a person who is then likely to tell others. It can also be used to treat phobias and PTSD, so has very real implications in terms of health and well-being.

Allen highlighted that as VR technology has evolved, more and more people are able to use it in the comfort of their own homes. With prices ranging in the thousands to less than £3 for Google cardboard glasses, it is becoming easier for people to enjoy and experience the technology, which on the surface, sounds like a good thing; it’s no longer something that is limited to early adopters or those who are privileged enough to be able to access VR events at festivals or other similar events.  But this raises questions  around what  creators should be thinking about when making stories that may be experienced within an environment that is less controlled. With VR in particular, context is key, and  there’s a concern that representation of characters and stories without due context can lead to a distortion of reality that remains once the headset is removed- particularity concerning when there is still a large male skew in terms of creators and users; the importance of representation is vital. However, things are improving, and guidelines are starting to  develop to safeguard users, with more research being done as VR increases in popularity.

Within a controlled environment, one recommendation from Allen for those who are considering VR as part of a festival or in a cinema is to ensure that there is a space afterwards for users to debrief, discuss, and unwind. VR can distort our sense of time and space, and this can be very disorientating.

A key takeaway from Allen’s speech  was that as a relativity new medium, those who create VR experiences have the benefit of being able to form these practices, and make them the status quo, and a lot of these practices do come from the cinema.  Allen posed the question, ‘what would Hollywood look like if it was created now? And it’s an important question,  particularly in the wake of the wave of allegations that are sweeping across the industry at this current time. What is apparent is that there here is a reassuring  sense of duty within the industry to  ensure that i is  inclusive, represents communities effectively and equally, and avoids harm.