Photo credit: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire, written by Judith Duffy

ALTHOUGH it is still an emerging technology, experts are predicting that becoming immersed into an imaginary world through virtual reality will soon be as commonplace as using mobile phones.

A survey has found one in eight of the British population have used virtual reality (VR) and nearly six out of 10 say they would use it.

However many are concerned about the potential pitfalls of using the technology – with nearly seven out of 10 saying they would be worried about losing awareness of the world around them.

Catherine Allen, a VR producer and creator who is also a mentor for the EdinburghInternational Television Festival Talent Scheme, argued that the ethical considerations around VR need to be considered “sooner rather than later”.

She said: “VR is really taking off right now, there is a lot of interest in it and a lot of companies investing in it.

“There is a lot of predictions around how big as an industry it is going to get, which would mean mainstream use, people will have headsets in their home and it will just become a standard part of everyday life in the same way you play a computer game or watch TV.”

Virtual reality typically involves users wearing headsets to immerse themselves in a computer-generated world. There is also augmented reality (AR) – such as the recent game Pokemon Go – where virtual objects can be seen in the real world, albeit on smartphones.

Allen said one of the fastest selling VR experiences was a game called Arizona Sunshine which features “shocking” images of human-like zombies.

“If you wanted a case study of where the dark side of VR could go…it is pretty shocking stuff,” she said.

“But my angle on it is that because it is a new industry, we have got a really golden exciting opportunity to make it a healthy positive industry – thinking about what we can do with VR which is good for society.”

Foundry, one of the major visual effects firms behind making computer-generated images look increasingly realistic – including big budget Hollywood movies such as the ground-breaking 3D films Avatar and Star Wars – is now turning its attention to doing the same for VR.

Jon Wadelton, chief technology officer, said once the technology was developed to make everything look “hyper-real”, it would bring questions over the blurring between reality and unreality.

“There are countless examples where VR can be used for therapeutic use – for example you may be in hospital and having an operation and in pain or anxious,” he said.

“So you put the VR glasses on and that transports you to a beach. You truly do feel like a beach and that reduces your anxiety and pain.

“But what happens when the hyper-reality is so good you prefer that to being in reality? There may be a point where the person wants to stay on the beach the whole time and not go back to reality. It is good on one side and then bad on another.”

Wadelton, who will be speaking at VR World, a major conference on the technology taking place in London later this month, also pointed to the example of the film Avatar. When it was released in 2009 there were reports of cinemagoers experiencing feeling of depression after seeing it – as they were unable to visit the alien world Pandora featured in it.

“There was that level of immersion with just a film when people had 3D glasses on,” Wadelton said. “So you can imagine in VR it is more and more immersive.”

While 3D film and television has largely been deemed a flop, Gary Radburn, a VR/AR director at technology firm Dell, is confident VR is not going to peter out in the same way.

He pointed to the growth in commercial use of the technology, for example providing architects with the ability to design and ‘walk round’ buildings even before any ground has been broken.

Radburn said it was predicted that similar commercial uses of VR and AR would account for 35 per cent of the overall market in the future, with entertainment and gaming uses making up 11 per cent. Healthcare, education and tourism are among the other areas where VR is expected to grow.

So will future generations end up sitting around totally immersed in virtual worlds without ever leaving the house? Radburn, who will also be speaking at VR World, believes much of the concern can be compared to when other technologies which are now part of everyday life emerged.

“People thought when TV came out it was going to kill the cinema because everyone could now watch films at home,” he said. “That never happened.

“It is not really going to change to all of a sudden becoming like [the film] Wall-E, where the robots have taken over and people become just this blobs on a sofa.

“You have got a finite amount of entertainment time and how you spend that is going to be divided into a bit of VR, a bit of TV, a bit of radio and – dare I say – a bit of going out and getting some fresh air and interacting with other people.”

He added: “Everybody used to laugh at the mobile phone in the 80s when it was first introduced, yet we are now at a point where people get separation anxiety from their mobile phone as it has become such a tool for everyday life. That is essentially where VR could go.”