The technological capacity for generating virtual worlds from home computers will soon be widely available to the general public, as special head-mounted displays are brought to market that create the illusion of being immersed in virtual three-dimensional worlds.

The fact that Virtual Reality (VR) can create these strong illusions is a main reason why VR brings new risks - recent studies have shown that immersion in VR can cause behavioral changes that last after subjects leave the virtual environment. And because VR can also create a situation in which the user's bodily appearance and visual environment is determined by the host of the virtual world, it raises the possibility that VR will create vast opportunities for psychological manipulation.

To try and address some of these concerns, a team philosophers have created a virtual reality code of conduct, akin to science-fiction author Isaac Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics" from the story "Runaround" in 1942. 

"These studies suggest that VR poses risks that are novel, that go beyond the risks of traditional psychological experiments in isolated environments, and that go beyond the risks of existing media technology for the general public," write Michael Madary and Thomas Metzinger from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in Germany. Both philosophers have participated over the last several years in an EU project on "Virtual Embodiment and Robotic Re-Embodiment" (VERE) with a focus on illusions of embodiment, in which one has the feeling of owning and controlling a body that is not one's own, such as an avatar in VR.

Based on their analysis of the risks, they offer concrete recommendations for the use of VR. For example, in experimental work developing new clinical applications, researchers should be careful not to create false hopes in patients. They should repeatedly remind them of the merely experimental nature of the research. Madary and Metzinger also note that a code of ethical conduct, however important it may be, can never function as a substitute for ethical reasoning itself on the part of researchers. Out of concern for consumers of VR, they call for long-term studies into the psychological effects of immersion and see a special danger with particular content such as violence and pornography, where the advanced technology increases the risk of psychological trauma.

Users should be clearly informed of these dangers, as well as risks of hallucinations, personality changes, and the powerful unconscious influence of advertising in VR. Finally, Madary and Metzinger draw attention to the need for regulations regarding ownership and individuation of avatars, regulations that should also address concerns about surveillance and data protection.

Citation: Michael Madary and Thomas Metzinger; Real Virtuality: A Code of Ethical Conduct. Recommendations for Good Scientific Practice and the Consumers of VR-Technology; Frontiers in Robotics and AI, 19 February 2016;