The Ethical Challenges Within Augmented/Virtual Reality | by Michelle Giraldo | Nov, 2020

I edited this and this image together in MSPaint.

There’s actually many ethical challenges in AR/VR that you may not even realize!

Augmented and Virtual Reality is not as new as one would think. The idea of them, as well as their application, has been around for a relatively long time. The most recent Reality created is actually the Mixed Reality, unveiled by Microsoft in 2016. Each of these Realities, AR, VR, and MR, are slightly different and can all be referenced by the term XR. The term XR was first coined in order to be an umbrella term to easily reference the different immersive technologies that are around now and will be created in the future. For a review of XR, here is a chart explaining the basic differences:

Image from this article, click for a refresher on VR/AR/MR

XR has made a lot of technical advancements recently, and with their technologies upgrading super quickly, the everyday consumer is now able to access these Realities. It seems like only a few years ago that only the upper class could access such luxuries, but now a-days there are such a wide range of XR hardware out there that practically anyone can try it out for fun. There are some big name providers out there like Vive and Oculus, or you can get one on your console or even phone!

Image from this front page, a website to help network XR startups.

Although it is awesome that the accessibility of XR has grown so much and continues to do so, there are concerns regarding ethical challenges that are likely to occur as a result of these technologies’ growth. Virtual Reality has already been around in the medical field for a while, and even helped many people in different ways, but what could happen as it becomes more accessible and intertwined as time goes on?

This image captures a doctor using VR image technology to “fly through” a 360-degree model of a patient’s brain to plan/strategize the best route for surgery.

VR already has an impressive history in the medical field. It has already helped not just treat patients with PTSD, Phobias, Anxiety, Depression, and more, but also in providing support for doctors to do a better job in helping patients.

Once AR/VR can be used more frequently for their therapeutic and clinical applications, there may be a cause for concern in its growth. As patients hear about this new technology making headway, it’s possible that they may gain therapeutic misconceptions. This means they may have false hopes in what treatment XR can provide them, possibly believing that these treatments are better than any alternative that may actually be known to help and may be even going against doctors’ suggestions. This is cause for an ethical problem to occur within the medical field and XR applications as there will be a tension created between beneficence and autonomy.

Image found here.

To help prevent or ease this tension, therapeutic and clinical applications should be worked on or given as an option only in the presence of a certified medical personnel. Hence, XR researchers will have to be careful in making and promoting their applications. They should make sure to work closely with doctors/physicians who can help make any informed judgements they may need to take. This way “false hope” can be avoided and patients will be able to see their options more accurately.

There is also the ethical worry on who will be the one to pay for the hardware and software once this XR tech is more available. There is reason for concern in there not being distributive justice, as it is possible that only privileged society members would be benefiting from these advancements while everyone else would not be given the option.

Image found here.

However the concerns of ethical challenges arise not just in regard to the medical field, but in the entertainment industry as well.

The reason AR/VR has been so successful in the medical industry is because of the impact XR has on the conscious and unconscious mind, allowing for these therapeutic capabilities. It’s one of the reasons VR is so great, for how immersive it is, allowing one to practically leave the physical world behind. This is also a reason for concern though, as it has been found to have impactful medical uses, but the effects it would have on someone in the consumer-entertainment market is unknown.

Negative Influences on the Human Behavior

Deeply realistic XR experiences can essentially “hijack” the senses of the user. This immersion introduces new ways of dramatically disrupting the user’s relationship with the natural, or “real”, world, unlike how phones or PCs may be able to. This is a red flag as there are already people addicted to their phones or computers, and just like there are people with this “need” of social media, there may be a “need” of VR. VR can introduce a new type of environment that can be social, have its own cognitive, and own cultural niche. That means this “need” would become even more physiologically ingrained and may affect even more people.

Image taken from here, “How VR May Lead to Widespread Addiction”.

One central result of modern experimental psychology is the fact that anyone’s behavior can be strongly influenced by external factors — all while they remain totally unaware! Just take a look at some of the most famous psychological experiments: the Stanford Prison Experiment, Milgram’s Obedience Experiments, and Asch’s Conformity Experiment. These show how easy it is for one’s environment to influence one’s behavior.

Since the human behavior is particularly sensitive to one’s environmental features, the results of these experiments may be even more relevant to VR. This relevancy is because of one’s overwhelming experience of their presence actually being there, adding the fact they can actually modify and interact with their environment, and being recognizable on a social aspect.

As VR introduces opportunities for new and powerful forms of mental and behavioral manipulation, there are ethical concerns about the creation of the environments the users will be placed into. Users can be especially manipulated with certain, potentially malicious, intents from commercial, political, religious, or even governmental interests behind the creation and maintenance of virtual worlds and applications. Plus the fact that the impact XR has on the conscious and unconscious mind has the potential to reinforce negative stereotypes and create biases.

Image found here, “Does virtual and augmented reality mean augmented cybercrime too?”.

This also raises the concern of the illusion of embodiment, where someone feels like they are being embodied in something other than their physical self. Since XR can be very immersive and the human mind can be easily influenced, this may be easier to achieve as there is a lot of access to customization, meaning one can alter their age, gender, race, etc.

The illusion of embodiment already can happen from normal brain activity, such as dreams, out of body experiences, phantom limb experiences, and in Body Integrity Identity Disorder. So this worry of XR being able to target and manipulate how we identify ourselves, essentially our “self-hood”, is actually plausible. VR and its technology already directly targets this by causing the user to identify themselves as their avatar or model. A study has even shown that people tended to take on the behaviors of whatever model they embodied in VR once they were back in the “real” world, even if momentarily. This is where an ethical concern comes in, as the psychological risks of the illusion of embodiment is unknown. Especially if it was to be misused or used recklessly.

Harassment, Targeting, and So On…

XR already has multiple applications that allow people to socialize together, either by playing a game or just chatting with each other. A popular, well-known, VR socializing platform that is already around is called VRChat. Anyone can join, explore, play, and just socialize together with their own custom avatars and worlds they created themselves. It may sound harmless and fun, and very much can be, but just like new forms of harassment, racism, and et cetera started occurring with the creation of social media, it may as well in social VR.

Image found here, “Too real: Fighting sexual harassment, abuse and violence in virtual worlds”.

Social XR provides new ways of engaging people with immersive virtual world participation, while providing people with malicious agendas a new opportunity. These people may intend to take advantage of social VR to either consciously or subconsciously participate in things that raise ethic and moral concerns.

As it is easy for anyone to take on the form of someone, or even something, else in XR, it’s entirely possible a user would use this to their advantage. People may participate in cat fishing, trying to gain something, usually money, from someone by pretending to be someone they aren’t. Kids in particular may be targeted by groomers or pedophiles who can easily lie about who they are. People already participate in “trolling”, which means intentionally trying to upset people for amusement, but it may lead to an increase in malicious trolling as they’d have more power in social VR than elsewhere.

Image found here, “Dealing With Harassment in VR”.

The fact that harassment can be really invasive in XR is concerning. Users who are socializing with others can easily walk up to another player and verbally or “physically” harass them. If the application allows for it, then the harasser can be easily blocked but the harm will already have been done. There are currently no real repercussions of a user acting this way while the victim could feel mental, emotional, and even physical duress or harm from this interaction.

It is very important to recognize the fact that harassment in XR can be pervasive and have significant impact on anyone. There have already been cases of virtual sexual assault with real-world, long-lasting impact. It is entirely possible for XR to move from helping victims in the medical field to causing actual harm if not monitored carefully.


As stated earlier, XR has the capabilities of reinforcing terrible stereotypes and potential biases — which is why diversity is important.

Image found here.

Diversity, of course, is important in many fields, but the fact that XR can be more impactful than realized is all the more reason why it’s important to have diversity in the production of AR, VR, and MR.

There are ethical concerns around the fact that the majority of people behind the production of XR are privileged, straight, white males. While there is nothing wrong with being a privileged, straight, white male, that does mean the possibility of a limited view point that could accidentally lead to a kind of ignorance with unprecedented consequences.

This means there should be a concern about if a team designing influential XR applications are diverse enough, who it is they are pandering to, and what kind of media is involved. The media outside of XR has already been lacking in diversity, which only really began to change only recently in the years it had already existed. This is an industry that has historically not done the best job at being fair, which combined with an industry that lacks diversity, then an ethical challenge is sure to arise.


A topic that has always been relatively big is privacy and consent. There is an ethical concern with the growth of XR there may be a growth in the lack of privacy that may occur without a user’s consent.

There is a belief that more data will start to be taken, eye movements will be tracked, body reactions will be monitored, and so on.

Image found here, “Augmented Reality Must Have Augmented Privacy”.

Data is everywhere and most smart tech is capable of tracking it, if it isn’t already. Most of the time companies are purposefully collecting our data to benefit them in some way. Sometimes this data is sold to third party services in order to promote more relevant ads to each user. It is entirely possible for intrusive ads to become a worry in XR as well and not just because they’d be a cause for annoyance. Right now there are no limitations to what these ads could promote, and who knows? Maybe these ads would have more impact than the ones we know today because of how immersive XR can be.

Speaking of how immersive XR can be, the data that can be collected from these immersive virtual environments would be worth a lot to companies as they could collect information on eye movements, emotions, real time reactions, and so on. There is an ethical concern that consumers won’t know about this or even have to provide their consent for their data to be collected. Meaning, there’s an ethical challenge for pushing developers and companies to make sure consumers have to give explicit consent for their data to be collected. Never mind the fact that laws coming out in response to technology comes out at glacial pace, meaning it can be a long time before there are laws or rules established on how data is collected, what is done with it, where it’s stored, and so on.


While XR can help users increase their understanding of people with disabilities, it has only recently begun to accommodate users with different needs. These accommodations still have a long way to go and will have to be accounted for in hardware and software, making this an ethical challenge.

All parts of the system should be accessible, such as the power button, set up and configuration, controller buttons, and menu navigation. Input controls can be improved upon and include voice control, motion/gesture controls, and an alternative physical interface.

Companies have already started creating ways to make XR more accessible for everyone — even those who are blind!

Microsoft has created a VR haptic controller for the visually impaired in order to help them navigate a virtual world, which is super awesome! This can help solve some ethical challenges no one really thought about before, like providing the visually impaired an opportunity to not just try some exciting applications, but to help themselves plan routes they may need to take in the real world. Going down an unfamiliar route may be terrifying or difficult, this opens up an opportunity for them to try out their routes before hand.

Image found here, “VR and AR: The Ethical Challenges Ahead”.

While software developers may not be able to adjust the way XR hardware is made, they can still make sure their applications are accessible in many ways. For those with visual disabilities — audio cues, zooming capabilities, colorblind options, and text size/color changes should be provided. To help those who may be deaf or hard of hearing, there should be options to toggle noise indicators, text indicators, closed captioning, and more. Even adding input support, motion sickness prevention, a tutorial, or level difficulties can make an application more accessible.

Image found here.

While XR is not fully integrated with society yet, it is important to set a basis that confronts as many ethical challenges as it can before it continues to grow. What is done in its young years will set the tone for years and years to come.

The matter of fact is, XR’s immersion is so immense that it can be super beneficial, meaning it could also be very dangerous. The long term effects of deeply immersive XR experiences are still unknown. XR has so much opportunity of creating revolutionary developments for not just the individual, but society at large. It can, and already does, add immense value to the way people learn, work, entertain, and so on. In anticipation of this growth, it’s important to also anticipate new ethical challenges that may arise, and practices or policies in preparation for them.

Just as XR can increase empathy, it can decrease it too and induce users to specific emotions that could cause suffering or even torture. Developers should be sure to release explicit statements that explain the lasting effect immersive XR can have on the user’s behavioral influences. They should be careful when creating any XR applications that has the potential to allow harassment or targeting. Just as the real world is firm and strict on the topic of harassment, the virtual world should be as well.

Facing ethical challenges head on is the best thing for everyone to do in the grand scheme of things.

Harvard i-lab | Where are the Boundaries?: AR/VR Ethics & Policy


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