Virtual Reality: An Old Term, a New Implementation
Today, virtual reality or “VR” is becoming more popular in that companies across the world are starting to find new ways to better implement its technology into our own reality. While VR takes on various forms, we must first attempt to understand what VR actually is. You would think VR as a term is new to our age, but in reality, it has been used since the 1990’s when personal computers became faster with higher performance.
Virtual reality is a computer generated environment created by computer software which allows the user to use a combination of their sensory perceptions (sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell) to recreate their reality, in a simulated world. To un-complicate that description, it all comes down to a computer simulated environment that creates a three-dimensional multi-sensory environment, which allows the user to mimic or create their own reality.
The market for VR is picking up with the Oculus Rift, Sony’s Playstation VR, Google Cardboard, and many others. However, the concept of VR has been around since the late 80’s, originally starting with Disney’s famous 1990’s movie, Tron. A more “modern day” implementation of VR came about with the Wachowski siblings, The Matrix. Even more recently, was James Cameron’s 2009 release of Avatar, where scientists and researchers would plug in so they could be able to breathe and walk around the planet of Pandora. Lastly, in 2010, Disney rebooted Tron and released Tron: Legacy.
Virtual Reality has become prime and beneficial in different industries such as the military, education sector, video games, and medical and professional fields. As it applies to education, computer programmers are able to create an interactive student and teacher system where the simulation would allow the student to ask questions with an immediate response or even allow them to “walk through” their geographical studies and time-eras.
In the entertainment industry, we have seen movies portray a very “cool” aspect of VR, such as The Matrix, by “jacking in” to the computer mainframe; Star Trek, Tron, and Avatar. Even as of the past few months, Netflix has released Black Mirror, an original series which portrays the “dark side” of technology and virtual reality as it impacts the individuals who use it and society’s dangerous dependence on it for functionality and living day to day lives. In terms of video games, we have seen first person shooters such as Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, Battlefield, and other such games which allow players to roam the streets and shoot at opposing enemies; we have also seen training games such as flight training and driver’s ed, or even PGA Golf, done through the Nintendo Wii.
Lastly, the medical fields have begun to implement VR in their program of training doctors. Medical professionals are able to simulate complex operations and procedures before they actually perform them on a patient to get a better understanding of the system.
Criminal Behavior in Virtual Reality: Just Because You Can’t See It, Doesn’t Mean It’s Not Happening.
Indeed, while VR has started to create beneficial and efficient uses for its users, it also comes with a dark side, as does all technology. The most puzzling question, which many experts are split on is whether a person can commit a real crime in virtual reality? What happens when users have a difficult time understanding and distinguishing their virtual reality and fantasy world with our reality? How does a court implement laws and regulations to distinguish reality vs. fantasy?
Unfortunately, with the increase in our technology, virtual reality has increased the types of crimes occurring within its cyberspace. Criminal activity involving sexual harassment and assault, cyber-bullying, and even more frightening, young children. For intellectual property gurus, this area is particularly frightening as copyright law extends to the virtual reality realm.
Sex Crimes and the Traumatic Emotional Experience Within Cyberspace
While there is no easy way to say the following, sex crimes being committed in virtual cyberspace is nothing new, unfortunately. We have all read about or unfortunately been the victims of forced online sexual activity—whether by text message, email, telephone, or other means. However, what makes this different in virtual reality, is the victim’s desire to bring their violation in cyberspace public, specifically to the Courts.
Virtual Rape. One example is the concept of “virtual rape”. Virtual rape is real and even a traumatic experience for the victim, which can have severe and devastating impacts on the victim which causes their self-esteem to sky rocket into the ground, including their community reputation, as well as their faith and dependence on technology itself. Generally, the crime of rape is defined as non-consensual sexual intercourse that is done by means of threat, injury, or physical force. Today, the crime of rape is gender neutral. For someone who has either not immersed themselves in the depths of the internet or cyberspace, or luckily, avoided instances of this, virtual rape is hard for many people to grasp their minds around because of their ability to relate. Why is this? Well, most of the psychological aspects vital to reality’s crime of rape are faint, if not, completely removed from virtual cyberspace. The ability for a person to truly “feel” something that “technically” isn’t happening is up for debate among many experts.
Some experts argue that sexual crimes taking place through virtual reality are in fact, not a crime. However, those who strongly disagree, believe it is a crime, moreso because of the long-term investment certain people make in their online profiles. Also, while a body isn’t necessarily being touched, it is in cyberspace, and that person SEES IT, FEELS IT, REMEMBERS IT. What happens when an online environment, be it social media or a virtual reality device, becomes too much, too scary, too violent, too dark? What happens when one user’s behavior causes another user such anxiety that it affects their ability to then interact with others, or even…themselves?
In reality, when any one of us goes online, we take on a type of persona, a different persona than we do in the real world. This is done without you even knowing. Your ability to dive into cyberspace allows you to be anyone you want to be, and essentially, create your own secondary slate of your identity. Sex crimes such as assault, harassment, and rape have more than just a physical element to it, there is also a mental and spiritual aspect to it, which cannot be placed on any scale for an individual to be the judge and jury on. It may take someone an inconsiderable amount of time to heal, whether that’s by acknowledging they’ve even been a victim or learning how to process such atrocity in their day to day lives. On a more relatable scale, we go through this incessantly—online dating, getting dumped via text-message, having a fight online or via phone, ect. This is not unheard of, just never broken down like this.
Young Children and Minors. Society has strongly implemented the fact that it is a criminal offense to sexually abuse a child on the internet, let alone possess any pornography depicting a child. So, how could anyone say that engaging in online sexual conduct that is unbecoming or even criminal in our reality, is not also a crime in cyberspace? When it comes to young children, subjecting a young child to sexual words and phrases, graphic images, and other forms of media is considered to be abusive to their physical, emotional and mental states. Why should the same not be said for adults?
Back in 2014, there was a case involving Sony’s Morpheus virtual reality headset being used to essentially users would become “adults” in this world and molest young children, and then kill them. This is most certainly a crime. The question for the courts is how to bring virtual reality into a court room. What evidence is there available other than the emotionally disturbed individual?
Another horrifying example occurred in 2015, which involved Linden Lab’s virtual reality game, Second Life. Linden Lab provides its user with a free basic avatar, which is a three-dimensional portrayal of the user, either male or female. You know where this is going…Everything else involving the avatar costs money. The user can customize their avatar in any way, from clothing to tattoos and even changing their body shape. However, when Kevin Alderman’s company, Business At Eros, came around with its $45 virtual reality code, SexGen, the horror revealed itself. The SexGen allows for avatars to take on erotic positions by having the avatar click or interact with certain virtual objects that creates a menu of animated sex acts. Linden Labs faced a terrifying scandal, where users had somehow modified their avatars to look like children and created their own world of pedophilia by using Alderman’s SexGen code.
Currently, there are no pending cases involving virtual reality and sex crimes, as this has a lot to do with the fear of bringing victimization to the public light in addition to courts and legal expert’s confusion on how to apply our laws and rules of evidence to matters involving cyberspace. Most of the current cases out there right now involve intellectual property lawyers as it applies to copyright law and protection. Interestingly enough, I recently started watching Netflix’s Black Mirror, which is a modern-day Twilight Zone, revolving around the dark side of virtual reality technology. It presents twisted and demented uses of VR technology and its controlling precedent in every day society—all resulting in some sort of criminal activity being committed. The issue….how do the Courts address or ignore it.
So, What Legal Rights Do We Have?
The million dollar question that faces legal experts is so simple, that it presents a complex answer: Clearly, crimes and deplorable behavior are being conducted through virtual reality technology, so how can users protect themselves? What rights are available to them?
The answer: Well, it’s clear certain behaviors meet many of the same elements as our modern-day criminal statutes require. The problem is foundational evidence and legislation. Courts are having trouble simply extending our statutes into cyberspace. Additionally, the evidence required to prove such allegations and behavior are floating around in cyberspace and protected by the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. So, at the end of the day, all we really have is our word and our emotional and mental response to such activity. Shouldn’t this be enough? Again, many experts and courts say no. Some say that the best thing a person can do is to remove themselves from that media and brush it off. Others say, the programmers should implement “universal 911” into their games that allow a user to activate a blocking bubble surrounding their character.
In my opinion, while I believe the mere allegation of being the victim of a sex crime in this environment is enough, I am also stuck at the crossroads the courts face: legislation and evidence. How do we prove this?
At the end of the day, our legislation needs to be amended to include cyberspace which includes both virtual reality and augmented reality.
Does Virtual Reality Encourage Cyber-Harassment and Online Trolling?
While VR has presented its own terrorizing negative complications, online trolling and cyber-bullying is still very prevalent. As October 27, 2016, the case of Tyler Clementi, the student who was secretly recorded by his roommate, having sexual interaction with another maile, jumped to his death six years ago off the George Washington Bridge, is now coming back into the public spotlight. Originally, the New Jersey Court of Appeals dismissed Dharun Ravi’s (Tyler’s former roommate) 2012 conviction on at least 15 counts. Now, a plea deal has been arranged where Mr. Ravi would plead guilty and he would be sentenced to time already served in jail under his original sentence of 20 days, court-required community service, and a $10,000 fine. In my opinion, this is not even close to justice or even a proper way to handle such a case. This sentence was an insult to the Clementi family and to our justice system.
A teenager caused another teenager by means of online humiliation. Our laws must be amended to include proper justice and punishment for online trolls and harassment.