John Root is a co-founder of VRLA, the world’s largest independent virtual reality developer convention. He’s currently the head of developer relations for Envelop VR, and previously served as motion-capture lead for Magic Leap. The views expressed are the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent the views of Qualcomm.
Forgive me while I show my age for a second: In 1993, the same year that “The Attack of the Video Games” was a Time magazine cover line, I was the “Mortal Kombat” state champion in California. Video games, to put it mildly, were having a serious moment. They were gaining attention from Hollywood producers and big-money investors, but, at the same time, their impact on children was being put under a serious microscope.
Nowadays, the spine-pulling, gut-splashing violence in the original “Mortal Kombat” is almost cartoonish. Twenty years ago, however, it was shocking and divergent enough for legislators to pass bills banning the game and others of its ilk; one such ban, which barred the sale of violent games to minors in the entire state of California, made it all way to the Supreme Court, where the law was ultimately struck down as unconstitutional.
But the lasting impact of the “Mortal Kombat” controversy is something gamers (and parents of gamers) encounter every day: the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) age and content rating system. “Mortal Kombat” had pushed the video-game medium to a breaking point of sorts, where a critical mass of questionable content forced developers and publishers to take a long, hard look at managing the flow of unsuitable images to children.
Within the next decade or two, virtual reality (VR) will inevitably reach a similar crossroad. For the time being—as innovators like Oculus perfect the platform, and researchers work to understand how the human brain reacts to VR experiences—it’s far too early to start handicapping virtual content. Assigning ratings now would only serve to stymie development. Think about it: Why would someone put a bleeding-edge product in the market only to say it might make the user queasy or sleepy or, at the far extreme, violent?
Virtual reality has the potential to be transformative in so many ways. From the layperson’s perspective, we’re well aware of its ability to transport us to other worlds, allow us to walk on the moon, and relive memories long-forgotten. But from a therapeutic standpoint, we’re seeing it used to treat vets with PTSD, train fighter pilots, and ease phobias. There could be too much at stake to start preemptively creating limits.
Right now, the closest we have to ratings is what Oculus calls a “comfort factor.” The classifications, according to CEO Brendan Iribe, focus on the amount of movement and surprise in an experience. As a rating system, it’s a squishy measure; comfort is an extremely subjective thing. There’s no real, hard science behind it, so, consequently, there are no real repercussions.
Still, that’s just one company pre-screening content the way Apple does software for the App Store, in a field that’s adding new players on what seems like a weekly basis. Oculus has always been far ahead of the VR curve—perhaps platform-by-platform ratings will become the norm, as it is in mobile app stores—but this may be a case of too much structure too soon. Meanwhile, other companies in the VR game are echoing the call for a set of clear standards. But, as it stands now, there is no strong research consensus on the effect VR has on the human body or psyche, and most evidence collected outside the research community is only anecdotal.
All these questions led me to design a universal VR rating system at one point. Like with the ESRB, a VR experience would be submitted to a ratings body for review, and it would be returned with a suggested posture (is this a seated experience? or is it OK to stand?), duration (how long can I engage with this content? 10 minutes? an hour?), comfort (how likely is this to make me nauseous?), and recommended hardware specs, among other factors.
For example, imagine how an experience of riding a roller coaster might be rated. Perhaps after 30 minutes of loop-de-loops, hopping into the minivan to pick up the kids at school might not be the best idea, but maybe driving after only five minutes in that VR world is still okay for the average, healthy person. As a game developer, I am well aware that I could create something that makes you sick. I could create something that just does horrible things to your mind. After all, if VR can treat PTSD, could it also induce it?
Ultimately, after conversations with other VR leaders, I back-burnered the ratings-system effort. When I thought about it more, the hesitation I was encountering made perfect sense. VR is still an early adopter’s medium, so we can’t start throwing down limits before the technology is in enough hands to make a real impact.
It’s important to realize that VR technology today is tackling only two of our senses (sight and sound), so we don’t have a complete picture of what total immersion will look like. There are a few early technologies that deliver haptic feedback, but the sensations are far from the feeling of firing a gun or steering a fighter jet in real life. And we haven’t even begun to integrate taste or smell (and, come to think of it, do we want to?).
Eventually, and inevitably, VR will have its “Mortal Kombat” moment, and there’s a chance it won’t be pretty. Maybe one too many heads knocked on coffee tables after an hour of zero gravity or episodes of mutant next-level sleepwalking are what will push us to buckle down and regulate VR. Or maybe we’ll find out that VR is no more risky than a game of pickup basketball at the gym.
For the time being, it’s far too soon to make informed judgments. Like it or not, we’ll probably have to go through growing pains to finally reach our VR utopia, where technology teaches us, immerses us, and opens us up to rich digital worlds that, until now, have only existed in our imaginations.