The other DWI: Driving while immersed
On May 17, Meta and BMW released a video hailing a joint research breakthrough that will allow virtual reality headsets to work in moving cars.
Because the companies have figured out how to track a person’s body movement independently of the car’s motion, passengers and drivers will be able to wear VR headsets to simultaneously see the road and digital content or be totally immersed in a virtual world.
This is “the future we see coming down the road,” a Meta engineer says in the video.
I believe that 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 will not soon replace video games or Zoom meetings. So now they are turning to cars, pointing out in the video that, “Everyone spends time in cars every day.”
I believe that putting virtual reality headsets in cars will kill people. VR is the most immersive medium ever invented.
The notion that someone would drive an automobile while wearing a VR headset may sound outlandish, but 20 years ago, the notion that someone would type a memo while driving would have sounded just as improbable.
Every day, people lose loved ones because drivers choose texting over paying attention to the road. Approximately 5% of all car accidents are caused by distracted drivers, and texting has been proven to cause hundreds of deaths each year in the United States. In the Meta press release, while the narrative focuses on passengers, there is footage of a driver using the system. Moreover, their partner in this endeavor, BMW, is actively promoting VR for drivers.
The most relevant datapoint on this issue is Pokémon GO, an augmented reality video game where players see the world in real time but mediated through their smartphone or AR headset—watching a camera feed on the screen, which is overlaid with video game content. The game has already contributed to many deaths. On the website Pokémon Go Death Tracker, one can find specific news accounts of distracted drivers 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 reports of accidents in Tippecanoe County, Indiana, both before and after the release of the game in 2016, 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 an astonishing 48% in locations where there were virtual Pokémon objects nearby, compared to areas where there were no virtual objects.
This game remains wildly popular; of all people who regularly play video games in the U.S., about a third of them currently play this AR game. At a March ethics conference I attended, we were told that the entire team at Niantic, the company that makes Pokémon GO, charged with safety was only five people.
In the Meta video, they hedged the promotion with a caption: “Professional Driver on Closed Roadway — Do Not Attempt.” They are challenging drivers to resist the temptation of using the most engaging, immersive medium ever invented. Clearly this same strategy of hoping that drivers resist the temptation of texting has failed miserably.
Most of us can recall a recent experience when we glanced at our phone while driving, and then immediately felt guilty because we lost track of the road for a moment. Now imagine the pull is not simply a typed sentence, but instead an incredibly immersive VR version of your favorite band, or a craps table in Vegas, or courtside at a Lakers game. Pedestrians won’t have a chance, and there is no reason to believe that driver education or safety settings will be more effective in VR than they have been with phones.
I spent a number of years as an advisor to Samsung, working on their AR/VR strategy. I once gave a talk to about half of their C-suite and went through a thought exercise to make them see the urgency of driving while immersed. Imagine you could go back in time and rebuild phones to have a speed switch that automatically turned off phones in moving cars. Would you do it? If you answer no, then you are basically killing people every day.
If you answer yes, then drivers get to catch up with friends on the way to the office. It was a tense moment, but not an actionable one, because of course there are no time machines. Smartphones in cars are part of life now 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 to those at Apple who plan to release their own headset in June: You don’t need a time machine. VR is still in its infancy. Don’t do this.
Even better, take a leadership role here. In the video, Meta highlighted a feat of engineering — algorithmically separating body movement from car movement. So, they actually can build headsets that have the speed switch that automatically turns off in moving cars!
Just because you can make VR work in a car doesn’t mean you should. How many loved ones are going to be killed because someone wants to hit a block with a lightsaber while driving?