The perils of plunging into cyberspace

Daniel McCabe

Virtual reality is about to become a multibillion dollar industry, predicts Glenn Cartwright. According to the educational and counselling psychology professor, the world's most powerful entertainment and computer conglomerates are hard at work devising increasingly elaborate technologies--all designed to make you feel and see things that aren't really there.

Cartwright has a question about all this that he doesn't think the emerging virtual reality industry is posing: Is cyberspace good for us?

"Nobody is looking at the potential dangers in all this," says Cartwright. "The entertainment industry is ready to pour millions of dollars into cyberspace and they seem to be totally oblivious to the potential for psychological and physiological damage to the users of these technologies. We aren't carefully examining where the technology is taking us."

Cartwright has been discussing the benefits and potential pitfalls of virtual reality for five years now in a course he established for graduate students called "Consciousness, Virtual Reality and Cyberspace in Education."

Together with Marcos Silva, head of computer services at the McLennan Library, Cartwright has published several papers further exploring the themes studied in the course.

Cartwright says that he and his students have recently taken a "more hard-nosed approach" to looking at the phenomenon. With the use of equipment such as electroencephalographs, he and his team want to look at what is actually happening inside the brain when someone is exploring a virtual reality environment. How do our senses process information when we're wired to equipment that's trying to give us the sensations of "another world?"

"There is no question that virtual reality can make you sick," says Cartwright. The helmets often induce nausea and vertigo in users because of the time lag between what a user experiences and what he expects to experience--the computer driving the virtual reality sensations might take a split second to realize that you've turned your head to the right, before it changes the images it presents to you, for instance.

As the technologies evolve, that sort of disorientation is likely to fade. But as systems become more adept at convincing you that you're doing something that you're not, the potential for problems will only escalate, says Cartwright.

"Let's take the example of someone who really hates his boss. He'll be able to hook himself up to a realistic cyberspace environment where he can murder his boss. Is that just somebody blowing off steam? Or is there a chance that the employee might want to take that experience into the real world? The issues are similar to the debate surrounding violent movies and pornography."

But he points out an important difference. "With virtual reality, the experience is far more intense. The lines between what is real and what isn't get blurred, especially for people who have serious emotional or psychological problems to begin with."

According to Cartwright, drug users, schizophrenics and the emotionally unstable could be particularly vulnerable to "going over the cyber edge" when using the new technologies.

He says virtual reality could have other unexpected ramifications. "What if the state decides that it's cheaper to put a paraplegic into cyberspace than it is to do expensive spinal cord research? A paraplegic who enters an environment where she can imagine herself to be fully mobile might not want to come back. I can imagine a situation where a paraplegic would be suing to stay in virtual reality and her family would be suing to get her back."

All this isn't to say that Cartwright totally opposes the development of virtual reality technologies. "As a teacher, I'm excited about the possibilities. This could be the ultimate way of teaching. What better way to learn about Napoleon and the Battle of Waterloo than by actually being an observer at the battle? You could teach physics the same way and have students "visit" planets with different characteristics."

There are other interesting possibilities. In the current issue of Psychology Today, Cartwright is quoted in an article about teledildonics--a fast expanding branch of virtual reality that focuses on sexual sensations.

"The opportunities for gender exploration--and hopefully, increased sexual tolerance--are enormous. What's it like to be the other sex? With virtual gender-swapping we might come closer to finding out," Cartwright tells the magazine.

Cartwright thinks scientists need to study the effects virtual reality will have on our senses and on our ability to distinguish between reality and illusion. At the conclusion to one of their papers, Cartwright and Silva imagine a future Cyberspace Travel Advisory: "Only travelers who are well equipped emotionally and who understand the psychological terrain should venture there. If you must go, exercise caution!"