On May 17, Meta and BMW brought one video pleased with a joint research breakthrough that will allow virtual reality headsets to work in moving cars.
As the companies have discovered how to track a person’s body movement independently of the car’s movement, passengers and drivers can wear VR headsets to simultaneously see the road and digital content or become fully immersed in a virtual world.
This is “the future we see coming down the road,” a Meta engineer says in the video.
I believe putting virtual reality headsets in cars will kill people. VR is the most immersive medium ever invented: it covers your eyes and ears to replace the real world with a digital landscape. Meta – which sold 80% of all headsets worldwide last year and about 20 million in total – is facing the economic reality that VR won’t replace video games or Zoom meetings any time soon. So now they turn to cars, pointing out in the video that “everyone spends time in cars every day.”
I believe putting virtual reality headsets in cars will kill people. VR is the most immersive medium ever invented.
The idea of someone driving a car while wearing a VR headset may sound bizarre, but 20 years ago, the idea of someone typing a memo while driving would have sounded just as unlikely.
Every day people lose loved ones because drivers choose texting over paying attention to the road. About 5% of all car accidents are caused by distracted drivers, and texting has been proven to cause hundreds of deaths in the United States every year. In the Meta press release, while the story focuses on passengers, there is footage of a driver using the system. In addition, their partner in this endeavor, BMW, is actively promoting VR for drivers.
The most relevant data point on this issue is Pokémon GO, an augmented reality video game in which players see the world in real time, but mediated through their smartphone or AR headset, while looking at an on-screen camera feed, which is overlaid with video game contents. The game has already contributed to many deaths. On the website pokemon go death trackercan one find specific news reports of distracted motorists running over pedestrians while viewing a Pokémon-filled version of the road.
A Purdue University study quantified the phenomenon. Scholars analyzed just under 12,000 police accident reports in Tippecanoe County, Indiana, both before and after the 2016 release of the game, which was downloaded 100 million times during the brief study period. They found that in the months following the game’s release, crashes increased by as much as 48% in locations where there were virtual Pokémon objects, compared to areas where there were no virtual objects.
This game remains wildly popular; of all people who regularly play video games in the US, about a third currently play this AR game. At one Ethics Conference in March I attended, we were told that the entire team from Niantic, the company that makes Pokémon GO, in charge of security was just five people.
In the Meta video, they capped off the promotion with a caption: “Professional driver on closed lane – don’t try.” They are directors challenged to resist the temptation to use the most engaging, immersive medium ever created. Clearly, the same strategy of hoping drivers resist the temptation of texting has failed miserably.
Most of us can recall a recent experience when we looked at our phone while driving and immediately felt guilty for momentarily losing track of the road. Now imagine the pull isn’t just any typed phrase, but instead an incredibly immersive VR version of your favorite band, or a craps table in Vegas, or the court at a Lakers game. Pedestrians don’t stand a chance and there’s no reason to believe that driver training or safety settings will be more effective in VR than they are on phones.
I spent several years working as an advisor to Samsung on their AR/VR strategy. I once lectured to about half of their C-suite and did a thought exercise to get them to understand the urgency of driving while immersed. Imagine if you could go back in time and retrofit phones with a speed switch that automatically shuts off phones in moving cars. Would you do it? If you answer no, you’re basically killing people every day.
If you answer yes, drivers can catch up with friends on their way to the office. It was an exciting moment, but not an action point, because of course there are no time machines. Smartphones in cars are now part of life and innocent people will continue to die every day because people feel the need to text and drive.
To the decision makers at Meta and those at Apple planning to release their own headset in June, you don’t need a time machine. VR is still in its infancy. Do not do this.
Even better, take a leadership role here. In the video, Meta emphasized a technical feat: the algorithmic separation of body movements from car movements. So actually can build headsets with the speed switch that automatically shuts off in moving cars!
Just because you can get VR to work in a car doesn’t mean you should. How many loved ones will be killed because someone wants to hit a block with a lightsaber while driving?