FutureMedia Fest: The Technology and Ethics of Immersive Worlds

(co-written with Chris Ritter)

Benn Konsynski, George S. Craft Distinguished Professor of Business Administration for Information Systems and Operations Management, Goizueta Business School, Emory University

  • Christopher W. Klaus, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Kaneva, Inc.
  • Michael R. Macedonia, Vice President and Chief Scientist, Analysis, Simulation, Systems Engineering and Training Business Unit, SAIC
  • Jonathan Shaw, Research Scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Associate Director of the College of Architecture’s IMAGINE Lab
  • Lora G. Weiss, Aerospace, Transportation and Advanced Systems Laboratory Chief Scientist, Georgia Tech Research Institute
Today’s panel on Immersive Worlds at FutureMedia Fest offered an interesting insight into the values of virtual world developers: where we’re going, and how we’re getting there, are more important than why.  This emerged during the Q&A, which comprised the bulk of the discussion.  Here are the more significant questions and their answers, some from the panelists and some from us.
  1. What new technologies do we need to create more and more immersive worlds? The first question from the floor lead to a flurry of answers from the various panelists.  The first response was a joke about bio-implants, which led to a slew of awkward giggles from the room.  It was a telling moment, a comment tossed-off as a joke, even though it is perhaps the most serious, the most truthful, response to the question.  Virtual worlds will become more and more immersive as the apparatus that controls them moves deeper and deeper inside our own bodies.  The rest of the responses were more immediately plausible and, likewise, more palatable: facial expression recognition, camera-detection of bodily movement, caps that measure brain activity, 60″ screens projected from a visor onto our retina, etc. One clear similarity in all of these responses was their emphasis on our physicality.  Whether the tech moves inside our body or not, it is clear that we will engage the tech with our bodies and that it will engage us in a way that is increasingly “multi-sensory” (a word used several times during the hour and a half session). Interfaces will become more transparent, even if they are not entirely invisible.
  2. When and to what extent will college classes move online into immersive worlds? People have been suggesting this and experimenting with virtual pedagogy in Second Life for many years, but it has basically failed to come to fruition.  In fact, the technology used in online classes (including learning management systems like Blackboard, D2L, WebCT, etc.) remains extremely low-fi, bound in a version of Web 1.0 that no longer exists elsewhere on the internet.  Why hasn’t the technology used for online classes advanced at the rate of other technology used on the Web? From a pedagogical standpoint, moving education online feels somewhat radical, fundamentally reshaping the space of the classroom; however, the technical results so far have been far less than radical, creating spaces that feel and look traditional and standardized.  Even as the internet becomes more and more democratic, allowing free access to a nearly endless array of content, the most popular pedagogical tools used for online education (like Blackboard) have become more and more restricted, with password-protected access to content.
  3. To what degree are virtual worlds overlapping with reality? This begs a related question, do we really want more immersive/realistic virtual worlds?  The responses to an audience member’s question about what it would take to achieve fully immersive virtual worlds indicated an interesting set of positions from the panel on the value of realism.  Christopher Klaus’s Kaneva project is apparently working for better mapping of physical identities onto avatars, he claims, because it’s better to have one’s virtual skin perfectly match one’s physical skin than to masquerade behind a stylized avatar.  Macedonia echoed the sentiment, claiming that closer mapping of physical to virtual bodies will give virtual worlds more legitimacy. We found this position surprising, not only because it runs counter to common celebrations of virtual worlds’ capabilities for escaping the body, but also because the fixation on realism can be dangerous. The danger with having more and more realistic worlds and more and more realistic avatars is that we run the risk of running into a problem with the uncanny valley, where there is a discomfort in viewers/participants interacting within a virtual world that comes very close but not close enough to resembling reality.  Dave Bryant writes in “The Uncanny Valley” <http://www.arclight.net/~pdb/nonfiction/uncanny-valley.html>, “Stated simply, the idea is that if one were to plot emotional response against similarity to human appearance and movement, the curve is not a sure, steady upward trend. Instead, there is a peak shortly before one reaches a completely human ‘look’ . . . but then a deep chasm plunges below neutrality into a strongly negative response before rebounding to a second peak where resemblance to humanity is complete.”
  4. Where does ethics (from the creator side of the table) come into play when putting this technology out into the market? Does a virtual world require “real” morals and ethics, or do virtual worlds demand virtual ethics?  What does an ethics of the virtual look like?  On this question the panelists were perhaps unintentionally evasive.  Most seemed to have given more thought to what is possible for us to create and less thought to what we should create. The question about ethics was re-posed to the panel a second time, in a somewhat impassioned plea that we all pause to consider the effects of virtual worlds upon the participants.  Weiss responded essentially that it’s the society’s duty to choose the good technologies from the bad.  Klaus added that most industries tended towards responsible self-regulation (i.e. the games industry with the ESRB), but that the process has to happen over time.  Moderator Konsynski said, “The worst thing you can do is regulate in the beginning.”  The danger is that you don’t address the ethical questions at the stage of creation, when sometimes irrevocable decisions are made about the trajectory of a technology.  For example, at this point, we couldn’t want a round cell phone (even if it were better), because the creators of the technology have already taught us to want rectangular cell phones.
As a final aside, once the session was over, we were left wondering about an off-the-cuff criticism of Grand Theft Auto:  Why does Grand Theft Auto get so much flack?  The game is often mentioned during discussions about the morality of virtual gaming environments as one unworthy of salvation, as though the game’s ethics (or lack thereof) are no longer in question.  It’s an easy whipping-boy or straw man for questions of virtual ethics; however, we agree that the game takes this question head on, offering a shrewd satire of the ethics of interactive gaming and virtual environments.
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