Virtual reality technology offers many advantages in the way that we play, learn, and work. However, every technology comes with disadvantages as well, once we consider impacts beyond their application.
This article will discuss the potential environmental impact of virtual reality hardware, including how significant it is and what companies and people are already doing to get the most good out of this promising technology while minimizing negative impacts on our environment.
The greatest variable in terms of how much virtual reality technology impacts the environment has to do with how involved the average person decides to get with the technology.
Virtual reality hardware isn’t all that different from the technology that we have in our smartphones, what varies is the quality and amount of that technology. That’s why with options like Google Cardboard users can get a decent VR experience with very little financial cost and perhaps even less environmental cost.
Many environmentally conscious VR users are primarily concerned about the volume of plastic required to make the standard VR headset. Most of the plastic used in technology and production, after all, is made from non-renewable fossil fuels. Further, the process of forming plastic from those fossil fuels is a major source of pollution as is the fuel used to run that process. That’s why Cardboard, as well as other models made from renewable resource like leather or wood are more environmentally friendly options.
Of course, headsets like Cardboard only work if you’re using a mobile device to power your VR experience. More advanced virtual reality technology requires many of the same elements as your smartphone, including lenses, motion tracking technology, and circuitry. The volume of material — including ecologically harmful material — also increases with devices for tracking the hands which are required for some VR experiences.
The circuitry in technological devices, especially those made of gold and other precious and rare metals, are some of the most environmentally damaging and unscrupulously obtained materials in technological devices. While experts have recommended that virtual reality technology producers use recycled gold and other metals and plastics to reduce the environmental impact of their products and indeed some investigations have found that many technology companies are making efforts to do so, though there is far to go.
One huge difference between virtual reality technology and mobile phone technology has to deal with planned obsolescence.
Mobile phone companies are famous for frequently releasing new models and are infamous for designing products that often fail quickly and are difficult or impossible to repair, forcing users to constantly buy new products. This is most certainly not the case for virtual reality technology.
While virtual reality technology is very difficult to repair, it is also not designed to fail. Its software also updates more often than its hardware with new hardware releases being about as far apart as enthusiasts can handle. This trait means that those that do go out and buy dedicated virtual reality hardware are likely to hang onto it for a while rather than discarding it because something better quickly comes along.
Some ecologically aware VR enthusiasts fear this to the extent that many VR users start with something like Cardboard and gradually move up through several models of increasingly complex headsets. Even in these cases, however, given the cost and popularity of virtual reality technology, these devices are more likely to be re-sold or kept than they are to be discarded.
Unfortunately, this was also once true of mobile phones, and some fear that the day will also come when virtual reality hardware is cheap enough and common enough to be easily and irresponsibly discarded.
Another area where virtual reality technology and mobile phone technology are similar and potentially analogous is in recycling.
Special recycling programs called e-waste or e-cycling programs exist for the safe and sustainable recycling of electronics including televisions, computers, and mobile phones. These programs are not as widespread or as widely used as more conventional programs for plastics and papers but are becoming more common as technological devices become more ubiquitous and as people become more concerned about the environmental impacts of those devices. There are also programs specifically for the recycling of mobile phones.
Though at this point it isn’t easy to find programs specifically for the recycling of virtual reality hardware, it is likely that such programs will appear as virtual reality technology becomes more common.
In the meantime, there does not seem to be any reason that virtual reality technology could not be e-cycled like your mobile phone or television in the event that it becomes damaged.
Virtual reality technology, like all technologies, does pose a threat to our environment in terms of how it is produced and discarded. The good news is that virtual reality is rising at a time when we are already aware of these dangers and our experience mitigating them in adjacent fields is already making it easier for us to address those concerns in the virtual reality industry.
While producers are experimenting with ways to design virtual reality technology in ways that use minimal materials or reusable materials, consumers can also make an effort to buy, use, and discard their hardware responsibly so that the social benefit of virtual reality continue to outweigh its environmental dangers.