Will Virtual Reality Kill Us All?

Will Virtual Reality Kill Us All?

A sensible and non-reactionary take on how we as a species just might be too stupid for VR.

Heed these ancient words of wisdom: The majority of accidents happen in the home. This phrase tends to run through my head when I'm in my apartment and about to do something incredibly stupid. Then I think, "Maybe I should get that stepladder after all."

Until recently, video games existed as one of the safest things you could do while indoors. Though the early console days brought about specific and non-terminal ailments like "Nintendo thumb," and later, "Mario Party stigmata," having a controller in your hands made for an excellent way to escape most injuries. Yes, I've witnessed big brothers punching little brothers for stealing the life-giving pizza in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game—but really, they brought it on themselves.

23 years later, and this is still the coolest anyone will ever look while using VR.

With VR, though, the rules are about to change. As a member of the press, I've taken a handful of VR demos at various events, and the setup is almost undoubtedly the same: I walk into a small room with a solitary chair in the center, and a friendly man to assist me with the process. As I play and feel incredibly self-conscious about someone watching me who I can't see, this kind soul does his civic duty by making sure I don't kill myself in some hilarious way, which would ultimately be bad PR. After 10 minutes of experiencing the threat of fake things nearly poking my real eyes, I leave this tiny room behind, sweaty and discombobulated.

The most important part of this equation? The chaperone. But in a home setting, most of us aren't going to have our own VR lifeguards—unless we get an au pair to pull double-duty or something. It may sound like I'm being reactionary, but we know from experience just how humans can revert to lizard-brained cavemen when confronted with new technology. And you only have to look at something as simple as the Wii to know that we simply can't be trusted. Smartly, Nintendo took the proper precautions, offering plenty of warnings and encouraging players to "buckle up" before engaging in waggle. And what happened?

Well, you only have to Google "Wii remote break TV" to see a host of stories about people who had no idea what the hell they were doing. Here's one (along with a video) of a Home Shopping Network presenter destroying a plasma TV with his killer Wii Sports serve. Here's another featuring someone's unfortunately overzealous bowling antics. And yet another guy brought to his knees by ten-pin hubris. There's absolutely no shortage of stories like these, and while Nintendo definitely predicted the problem, they likely had no idea they would so thoroughly fool people into thinking the limited functionality of a WiiMote could possibly translate their Andy Roddick power serve faithfully to the screen.

In the face of class-action lawsuit threats, Nintendo went beyond the wrist strap and upped Wiimote safety with a rubbery controller condom that fit snugly over its screen-shattering corners. And it's remarkable how fast they responded to this issue: My own Wii, purchased a year and some change after the original launch, shipped with one of these protective sleeves. And, by all accounts, their plan worked. Right around the time people stopped snickering at how "Wii" sounds suspiciously like a penis euphemism, the stories about critical TV damage stopped completely. I'm sure it still happened, but now that the WiiMote shipped with the equivalent of an airbag, Nintendo essentially absolved themselves of all responsibility.

Mid-'90s VR games like Dactyl Nightmare kept players fenced in to avoid being a danger to themselves or others.

And that's what has me worried about VR. It's not that I don't trust any of you, or myself—I don't trust people. With irresponsible Wiimote use, the main danger came in the possibility of wounding your TV. With VR, the outside world being completely shut out could make for some much more dangerous repercussions. Sure, we're bound to see plenty of spilled drinks, knocked-over lamps, and friends accidentally smacked in the face, but how soon will it be before we hear about our first VR fatality? Someone could conceivably put on a headset while drunk, high, or possibly both, and smash right through a glass coffee table. But it doesn't have to be that extreme of a situation: Add pets to the equation, and that seemingly friendly cat slipping between your legs could send you hurtling into your entertainment center, pulling thousands of dollars of pricey electronics down onto your fragile skull. And rest assured that your cat won't hesitate to eat you once you die.

This is no cause for panic, hand-wringing, or mass product recalls. Throughout history, people have always found increasingly idiotic ways to unwittingly off themselves, hence The Darwin Awards. Still, safety concerns for VR are something I've rarely seen addressed, making me worry that it's the one nut they still haven't cracked. I mean, most living rooms aren't even equipped properly for the Kinect—at least in the Bay Area—and using VR will likely require an even larger amount of empty space. And I can guarantee it won't be long until we hear about the first unfortunate soul who accidentally wandered out of his living room through French doors and onto the unforgiving pavement 10 feet below. Until then, stay safe, use VR responsibly, and be sure to keep an eye on your cat. That thing has been biding its time for years.

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