When virtual assault becomes all too real

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I see a man approaching me and holding his hand like asking for a handshake. The moment I’m about to do the handshake, he suddenly punches me. This is an assault towards me, and thank God it’s happening within a virtual reality now. Or does it?

Being able to touch things and approach people in a virtual reality is the second step of its development. The simple usage of 360-degree VR glasses has already spread around the world, including PlayStation VR coming out around Christmas.

The next stage is using special gloves that will give any player a possibility to interact with the object he or she sees. There will also probably be full-body suits so you could fight and feel the touches to all the body. This is called a “haptic technology” and it will allow you to feel the texture and dimensions of the objects, and maybe temperature and weight in the future.

Multiplayer online games have had to deal with “virtual crimes” for some time. User characters have been damaged, or had objects such as weapons and armour stolen, outside of the game rules. Court cases have even been brought in relation to such issues in the US.

But VR is different. A key aim of VR is for the user to feel that they are present in the virtual world. A virtual assault by another user might result in a blurring of the display through the headset, or a ringing in the ears provided by the audio speakers. A haptic device could add to the sense of personal assault by simulating the feel of the punch.

Remember waking up and feeling affected by a bad dream that seems very real? A bad VR experience could have an even bigger impact — after all, the user is awake and can be expected to have total recall.

Not that all VR must feature kittens and rainbows, of course. A user participating in a VR boxing match may want relevant haptic feedback. But what if the VR experience was a city tour? Would a user expect to be assaulted in a bar, say?

Who would be liable for a virtual assault? Clearly the perpetrator would have to answer for their actions, but what about VR developers? Kitchen knifemakers are not automatically liable for all harmful uses of their products. However, VR developers have a level of control over uses of their technology that knife manufacturers do not.

Why should the developer of a city tour allow a user to hit another? If the VR city tour allowed this, and without due warning, would the developer or hardware manufacture be able to show that they were not negligent in the design of the experience? It will be even harder for a developer to avoid liability for injury if there was no other user involved and it was the VR experience itself that caused the assault.

The answers to these questions will be dependent on the individual VR experience, but hiding disclaimers away in lengthy terms and conditions will not be the way to avoid liability. Unless VR developers take care in the creation of their technology, they will likely learn that the laws of the real world can still apply to the virtual one.

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