The Ethics of Taking Pictures of People While They’re in VR

Since I answer to no one with this blog, there’s no set of ethical guidelines but my own governing what I choose to post. Recently, I decided that I’d start asking permission to post pictures of people while they’re wearing headsets. There’s something gratifying about taking pictures of people in VR. They’re unaware that they’re being photographed and their body language is mapped to the world within VR and not the world outside. Since they’re not aware they’re being photographed, I can take my time setting up a shot. Watching someone use a Vive is almost like watching ballet. It can be quite beautiful.

How come people don’t look stupid when they wear a VR headset? Unlike the Google Glass, a Vive headset doesn’t make you look like a dork. Maybe part of it is that there really is no cultural precedent for this chunk of black plastic that you wear on your face. It’s not trying to get away with looking like an accessory that has existed for over a century. But maybe part of it also has to do with the absence of self-consciousness that the wearers exhibit in their posture and gestures.

Whenever I take off a headset after being immersed in VR more than a minute, whoever I’m with usually gives a little chuckle as I blink and readjust to physical reality. Maybe this little chuckle is a shared acknowledgement that goes back to the primal source of laughter. Evolutionary biologist V.S. Ramachandran theorized that we developed laughter as a way to alert our fellow tribe members of a false alarm:

The common denominator of all jokes is a path of expectation that is diverted by an unexpected twist necessitating a complete reinterpretation of all the previous facts — the punch-line…Reinterpretation alone is insufficient. The new model must be inconsequential. For example, a portly gentleman walking toward his car slips on a banana peel and falls. If he breaks his head and blood spills out, obviously you are not going to laugh. You are going to rush to the telephone and call an ambulance. But if he simply wipes off the goo from his face, looks around him, and then gets up, you start laughing. The reason is, I suggest, because now you know it’s inconsequential, no real harm has been done. I would argue that laughter is nature’s way of signaling that “it’s a false alarm.” Why is this useful from an evolutionary standpoint? I suggest that the rhythmic staccato sound of laughter evolved to inform our kin who share our genes; don’t waste your precious resources on this situation; it’s a false alarm. Laughter is nature’s OK signal.

Maybe laughter is a recalibration of the real. A chuckle is an acknowledgement of the gap  between the reality we perceive in a headset and the one we emerge back into. When you take a picture of someone while they’re in VR, they’re existing in two places at once. It seems voyeuristic to capture a shot of someone who is between realities.

Recently I’ve taken some photos of people immersed in VR that I thought came out nicely. Two of my favorites are of Jean-Pierre Chery and Jennae Numo. JP is working on some sort of music studio program on the Vive. Jennae is looking at some 360 photos I took of my recent Eastern Washington vacation on a SIFFX-branded Cardboard. I’m proud of how these shots turned out and wrote this post as an excuse to post them again. Both gave me permission to share them here.