Photo By: Stephan Sorkin from Unsplash

Virtual reality is becoming increasingly ubiquitous, particularly in the last few years.

That isn’t to say that VR is anything new, not by any stretch. The first time VR-esque technology was used was in the 1970s, mostly for flight training, automobile design, and for military purposes. It’s also been a pet project of the video game industry since the 1980’s, with the first major VR-related video game product being the Nintendo PowerGlove, released in 1989.

But beyond its uses by private industry and its troubled, gimmicky application in the video game world, VR has seemingly never been in a position quite like this, where its future widespread use and appeal seems not only likely, but perhaps inevitable.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage on due to the new Omicron variant and seems unlikely to stop anytime soon considering the continued low vaccination rate in the Global South, the conversation around remote working has shifted in many respects. While in 2020 many were discussing the return to the workplace, today, many are now looking at changing what the workplace even is. That’s where VR comes in.

In a blog post reflecting on 2021, Bill Gates predicted that within the next three years, most business meetings will likely be conducted in the metaverse, or in other words, VR. 

While Gates’ prediction is perhaps a bit bold, it may not be all that extreme, particularly given the recent launch of Meta’s (previously known as Facebook) VR social media platform known as Horizon Worlds. Having been in development since at least 2019, Horizon Worlds offers Facebook users who are 18 years of age or older to meet with up to 19 other people in a fully realized virtual space.

Its appearance is purposefully stylized and cartoony, so nobody will be mistaking it for our actual reality anytime soon. However, Meta’s intention clearly is to go in that direction. While it remains fairly primitive at the moment, in an interview from December 2021 with The Verge, Vivek Sharma, the Vice President of Horizon Worlds at Meta, said that the eventual goal is to tie in other Horizon applications that are currently in the works. Some of those include apps that allow for hosting large events, as well as smaller work meetings. However, it’s important to note that these are likely to come at a cost.

Speaking of cost, there is a lot of money being invested into, and being made from, VR these days. As of 2021, the industry is worth a little less than $5 billion USD. However, that is expected to reach over $84 billion in less than 10 years.

This isn’t news to many, however, as investment in the digital world has skyrocketed over just the last few months alone. While non-fungible tokens and other similar digital assets certainly are playing a major role in that sudden increase, another form of investment that has gone skyward lately is virtual real estate.

Yes, you read that right, virtual real estate. While it’s already hard enough for many to buy a home in the real world, the virtual market has exploded in the last few months alone, some say by as much as 400 per cent. In now long-standing VR worlds like Decentraland and Sandbox, companies are spending millions of dollars on parcels of digital land. 

Similar to real estate in our world, virtual real estate prices are affected by location. A virtual real estate company sells private islands for $300,000 a piece, while one user purchased a plot next to one owned by Snoop Dogg for around $500,000. Other celebrities are on these platforms as well, including Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, and Paris Hilton, just to name a few. They’ve even held virtual performances.

While purchasing real estate that doesn’t even exist in the real world might sound ludicrous for a retail investor to be engaged in, there is certainly some sense to it when you consider the potential value for advertisers. Owning land where people gather together in the virtual world could give you a foot in the door with those looking to advertise their products and services to a large captive audience.

Though VR is still a burgeoning market, with a major player like Meta having just opened their VR world to the public, traditional corporate giants are certainly keeping a watchful eye on the industry. Many are eager to see if it may be of value to them in the not so distant future. For instance, it was recently found in patent filings that Walmart is looking at selling virtual goods in VR worlds sometime down the line.

While the future of VR certainly seems bright, there are many detractors, as well as others who don’t think it necessarily has the legs to go as far as some people may be predicting. One such naysayer is none other than Elon Musk, who has been publicly critical of Meta’s plunge into the VR world. 

In a recent interview he noted that, after having tried out Meta’s VR world, he found the headset to be too uncomfortable for anyone to really get lost in the experience, as Meta and other proponents of the technology hope.

While Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has sold the idea as being a new form of the internet, one that you can be an active part of rather than just a passive viewer, it seems unlikely for that to become a reality when you have to strap a set of bulky plastic goggles to your face in order to experience it.

Beyond just being uncomfortable, VR can actually be damaging to your health, be it physical or mental. Physically speaking, as per a recent article in Law Technology Today, many VR users have reported vision damage and seizures from wearing the headset, while others have reported torn ligaments, and even broken bones as a result of disorientation and losing spatial awareness of the real world around you while engaged in the virtual world. Headaches, eye strain, dizziness, and nausea are other common symptoms reported by VR users.

In terms of the mental health effects of VR, here we actually see more of a mixed bag. When used in a clinical setting, much has been reported about the potential benefits of using VR in therapy. However, in general use, there are indeed mental health risks associated with getting sucked into the digital void.

Recently, a user reported being groped virtually by a stranger in Horizon Worlds. This would be a traumatizing experience for anyone, though this clearly poses the biggest risk to those who have been victimized in the real world in the past. 

In response to this revelation, Meta highlighted the safety features they have in place that users can enact in-game if they at any point feel unsafe or threatened. The fact that the onus is placed on the victim to enact these features to avoid being targeted, rather than on Meta themselves to regulate this social space they have created and are avidly developing further and marketing as the replacement for the internet, seems incredibly problematic.

Given the experience that companies like Meta have in developing highly addictive social platforms that billions of people use on a regular basis, the high risk of addiction to VR should not be ignored either. 

There’s also a clear risk of losing real-world socialization skills posed by regular VR use. While engaging with people in a fully realized space from around the world may in part be a positive aspect of VR, issues may arise if we all out replace real-life interactions with VR ones.

Also, while online security is already highly compromised, especially by companies like Meta, VR does actually pose several unique security and privacy risks that could become a major issue if not addressed before we see more widespread adoption of VR platforms like Horizon Worlds.

For instance, while users are free to create avatars however they would like them to look, the reality is that you are intrinsically tied to your avatar, as you are literally controlling it with your movements. As a result, data from your finger and eye movements is collected and stored, which could easily be intercepted by hackers and potentially be used for malicious purposes. The reality is, your tracking data while using VR is as identifiable as your IP address.

Clearly, there are many gaps that need to be addressed when it comes to VR before its widespread adoption if we want to avoid major societal fallout. Identifying all of those gaps, and potential solutions to fill them, is obviously outside of the scope of this article, but it should be top of mind for policymakers and politicians.

If massive corporations like Meta are working diligently to make sure you spend as much time in VR as possible, and companies like Walmart are already trying to capitalize on that, then government regulation will be necessary to protect consumers from predatory business practices.

Additionally, our governments also need to make sure users are protected from other users, as we are undoubtedly going to see predatory behaviour in virtual worlds become more prevalent as less tech-savvy users start joining in larger numbers over the next few years.

Lastly, the risks that VR users pose to themselves need to be considered by our governments, as the potential effects of VR use, from moderate to excessive, will likely impact our health care system to some degree if VR catches on as so many massive corporations are banking on.

While VR may be on the rise in terms of its use in everyday life, the imbalance between the value of that versus the risks it poses is concerning. While it seems more than likely at this point that VR is going to become more commonplace, the time is now to dictate what exactly that looks like. 

With some well-thought-out, pinpointed government intervention, it could be good. Left up to companies like Meta to decide by themselves, it could have some unfettered (and extremely negative) societal impacts. Only time will tell what path we end up taking.