Attention: This is the Captain Speaking!

Tom Nickel
4 min readSep 6, 2018

He called his VR experience “a screaming nightmare.” The (scant) news coverage attributed the quote to William Shatner, but that’s sure not how I took it in. I’m, like, “Holy shit, VR freaks out Captain Kirk!”

You’d think that would get people’s attention but it doesn’t. You could say that about a lot of things. But then a lot of things don’t have the potential of VR to make screaming nightmares.

Screaming nightmares are actually the least of our worries. Unless it gives you a heart attack, you can take the headset off. It’s the times when you don’t even know you should take the headset off that worry me.

We will be manipulated in VR without the awareness of something going on that a screaming nightmare provides. The dynamic force pushing the manufacture of a gazillion headsets, the design of countless new computer chips and cameras that miss nothing is capitalistic. Manipulation is built in.

Just in case you didn’t think we could be so immersed we wouldn’t know what else is going on, here’s a quick story:

KLM, the Dutch airline, recently studied the in-flight VR experience in a cabin simulator. The benefits are obvious — it helps kill time. But what about the risks?

What about contact with the flight crew in an emergency? In many cases, there wasn’t any, leaving the passengers “… unaware of the emergency, despite the simulated shaking of the cabin, loud noise, flashing emergency lights and the oxygen masks being deployed … they also didn’t hear cabin crew calling out vital safety instructions.”

I’m being a little silly with the Kirk metaphor, I guess, as a way to say nothing seems to get our attention, not an in-flight emergency when we’re in VR, or the Commander of the Starship Enterprise warning us about it. Kirk wasn’t a techie, but he had it under control. Techies worked for him. When people like him say some new neural technology scares them, I’d listen.

Back in February, 2016, two respected German professors wrote an extremely readable article, yet also thorough and serious, which explained why VR needs a Code of Ethics and what one might look like. It was the best starting place for a gradually building open discussion I could imagine. I wrote Posts and made Videos. A few non-mainstream outlets covered it. Nothing has come of it.

I wonder what the professors thought was going to come of it? What would be the actual mechanisms through which a Code of Ethics for VR could be developed? Whatever the mechanisms, there has to be a cost. Who wants a Code of Ethics for Captain Kirk’s nightmare enough to pay for it?

No one is going to take care of us. There will be no multi-stakeholder working teams and conferences, or if there are, they will be performative. At some point, a few supposedly respected bodies like the AMA or the APA will issue some Guidelines. Right.

Assume at least some of the folks who make hardware or software will do anything they want to with their products or services at one time or another. It will not be effectively regulated. We have to protect ourselves.

One way to start, in my opinion, is immersing yourself in immersiveness, then coming back out and reflecting, often the missing step in the learning process. Star Wars itself was exactly that — a way to look at ourselves-now, all dressed up and pretending it’s the future. As Gene Rodenberry has said many times,

“I have no belief that STAR TREK depicts the actual future, it depicts us, now, things we need to understand about that”

For me, social VR is where it all comes together, where we can be active and do things with other people where no one has gone before. My son leads groups in VR where people gather from all over the world to meditate. Language Learning places are cropping up. Clubs. DIY World Building kits are free.

I think partcipation is how we build our VR muscles and develop the kind of savvy that can save us.

William Shatner is also well-known as a Pitchman. What VR company wouldn’t want him? That’s why he had a demo of a VR experience that, unfortunately, he was not prepared for. All he could do was yell, ‘it’s scary!’

Captain Kirk was better at staying cool, learning something about humans, and moving on to the next story.

Read all my VR articles here



Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos