The ethics of immersion, virtual reality & consent

Immersing your audience in hyper-real situations, whether within an immersive theatre setting or a virtual reality experience can evoke intense reactions – How do you balance the potential of these projects with the ethics?

This was the question Mandy Rose put to panelists Kirsty Jennings (Blast Theory), Rik Lander (U-Soap Media) and Manuel Frutos-Perez (UWE) at the Digital Bristol session: Immersive Ethics – Dream or Nightmare?

Trust & transparency

Kirsty was primarily discussing Blast Theory’s current project Karen – an app that uses data analysis and psychometric scales to find out more about you than you think.

Whilst the project questions the current issues around data, privacy and surveillance, it also raises problems around trust and transparency with the audience: How much do we let the audience know without ruining the experience or damaging the artistic intent?

“You also have a responsibility to your audience; they are trusting you to create a world for them.”

The problem with immersive experiences is you don’t want to give too much away up front, but you also have a responsibility to your audience; they are trusting you to create a world for them.

A message from Karen from Blast Theory on Vimeo.

Audience testing

Running tests with groups is a common way to explore any issues before work is released to the wider public, however these are often with small groups making it hard to apply outcomes to everyone who may encounter the work.

Rik Lander history of doing experimental, immersive media and theatre has caused him to recognise the deep affect and impact work can have. He called upon a previous experience with a multi-screen installation he ran at a squat party in the 1980s, where a member of the audience harmed themselves whilst watching the work. Whilst he acknowledged a number of factors – related an unrelated – could have contributed to this, he maintained the importance of recognising the responsibility as the author of the work and chose to never show it again.

Whilst this is an extreme example, it has shaped how Lander approaches immersive experiences and audience participation. As someone creating these pieces, you don’t know who will chose to interact with your work, their history, their mental capacity and although you shouldn’t let this limit your creativity, you should design for these issues – they aren’t an afterthought, they should be built in.

Layers of consent

In a recent piece, The Memory Dealer, Lander observed how the audience have the ability to take on another character and how this can affect them in ways they may not be aware of at the time.

The Memory Dealer – documentation from Rik Lander on Vimeo.

With these experiences in mind, in his current piece he is building in ‘layers of consent’ that will allow people to go back if they feel like they’ve gone too far – but is it possible, or even necessary, to build this consent into all immersive projects and what happens when that work is not within a theatre setting, but the Oculus Rift?

Another issue is, even if consent is built in, audiences don’t necessarily know what they’re consenting too – it’s hard to know how you will react to being deeply immersed in something, whether it’s a real life experience or a virtual one.

The “frothing” space

The importance of a space for participants of an immersive experience to share or debrief following the event was agreed by all members of the panel and echoed by producers in the audience.

The conversations in these spaces can raise issues that draw the experience into reality, rather than leaving it in a removed, virtual world.

Whilst these spaces can be fairly easily included in real life events, immersive theatre, street games etc, how can they be convened for VR or mobile app experiences? If the experience is a singular one ie Oculus based, then the actual VR piece can be seen as part of the process, with consideration about what happens next.

“You should design for these issues – they aren’t an afterthought, they should be built in.”

Manuel brought in an interesting academic perspective around the process for getting research projects approved – if the research involves people it must go through an ethics committee to be scrutinised before funding is granted.

Obviously this isn’t the case for commercial work, the ethics fall down to the team creating the work. This is why continuing a dialogue around this evolving field is important; questions about ethics, audience and consent need to be continually revisited, with engagement from both the academic world and creators.

A unanimous sentiment from the panel was that when creating immersive experiences, you should design for these issues – they aren’t an afterthought, they should be built in.


You can watch all the presentations here and others from Digital Bristol week, including this great panel on ‘the new rules of immersive storytelling’.

Kirsty Jennings recommended a report by Blast Theory from Act Otherwise, a workshop that explored the ethical challenges of staging and studying interactive performances – Available for free here.