Oculus Rift – Legal Issues in the Virtual World

The Oculus Rift brings new questions about product liability.
The Oculus Rift brings new questions about product liability.

Yesterday Facebook announced that it had purchased Oculus Rift for about $2 billion. The Oculus Rift is a virtual reality headset designed to play games. And in fact, this looks like a much better product that the old virtual reality from the 90’s. But, if you go out and grab an Oculus Rift, keep in mind that you will also probably receive a bunch of warnings.

The problem with interactions between the virtual world, and the real world, are that your reactions to one may lead to consequences in the other. The more we make virtual reality real, the more the virtual world affects our real world experiences. And in the real world, when we hurt ourselves we can’t rely on finding a 1-up.

Nintendo Wii experienced this, as their remotes had real world consequences when they crashed through TV’s and knocked over property. There were even cases of remotes hitting others. The defective straps actually did end up in some lawsuits, but Nintendo tended to win them because of their very clear warnings, including a safety card on how to use the remote, and the fact that the straps may not have necessarily been intended for safety (a stretch, but the courts bought it).

Oculus Rift takes it a step further and puts you in the game so that your movements control the game. However, the more real the game, the more real its effects. One example is what’s called “simulator sickness” which is like a reverse motion sickness. This occurs because while the visuals change, your vestibular system (which sense tactile and positional movement) does not. The disconnect can make people sick. Oculus Rift says it’s working to overcome this.

Additionally, in virtual reality there is a tendency to forget it’s virtual, and treat it as reality. In one Oculus Rift game, the developer actually had to warn people not to physically interact with objects in the game. Players were leaning on posts, or using them to get out of crouching positions, only to find nothing there and crash.

It’s too soon to tell what kind of product liability will come from such immersion, but a lot of warnings will need to be included in order for Oculus Rift (and Facebook) to avoid personal injury and property damage lawsuits. Perhaps a virtual courtroom would be a proper setting to resolve these cases.