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What Happens If Someone Yells “Fire” in a VR Theater?

When the power went out at CES, I was immersed in a virtual show—and didn’t notice the potential emergency.

LAS VEGAS—I was careening at dizzying speed through a futuristic winter landscape on a virtual bobsled, jockeying for position with virtual rivals, when a roar went up from the crowd. My brain briefly registered this as odd, since I had seen no audience in the simulated scenery that was zooming past me on my Samsung Galaxy VR headset. But I didn’t have time to dwell on it, as the track suddenly fell away and I was plunging down a mountainside.

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Then I realized my seat had stopped moving.

I was sitting in a sort of virtual theater in the main exhibition hall at CES, surrounded by about 20 other participants in Samsung’s Galaxy VR Experience. Each of us was buckled into a mechanical seat that shook, swiveled, and rocked to enhance the realism of the simulation, called Winter Ride. I tentatively lifted my headset and peeked out, even though the bobsled race on my headset was still in full effect. To my surprise, the exhibition hall around me had gone dark, and attendees on the show floor were milling around in a state of anxious confusion.

The power had gone out at CES—hence the roar from attendees when the lights flicked out—and everyone was trying to figure out what was going on. Everyone, that is, except for one group of people: My fellow passengers on Samsung’s Winter Ride all still had their headsets on, still evidently immersed in the simulation and oblivious to the outside world. It took at least two more minutes before Samsung staff got the word around for people to take off their goggles and informed us apologetically that the experience had to end early.

Fortunately, there turned out to be no danger, and CES staff evacuated the Central Hall in an orderly fashion while they worked to restore power. But I couldn’t help wondering: What if it had been more than a power outage? What if there had been a fire, or an earthquake, or a terrorist attack?

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Virtual reality, which briefly captured the popular imagination in the 1990s before fizzling, is a hot technology once again because faster processors have made the experience convincingly lifelike: “Immersive” is the buzzword that defines a successful VR experience. At its best, VR can transport you in a more visceral way than any game or movie that you watch on a fixed screen.

We’re not quite there yet with mass-market mobile VR headsets like Galaxy VR, but Samsung’s demonstration offered a glimpse of how additional feedback mechanisms, like haptic seats, could complete the illusion. With box office sales sagging, Hollywood studios and theater chains like AMC are already investing in VR equipment with the hope of luring moviegoers anew. There’s nothing like Samsung’s CES setup on the commercial market just yet, but it’s not a stretch to imagine such a thing catching on in the future, if not at cinemas then perhaps at arcades like Gameworks or Dave & Busters.

We know a poorly executed VR experience can give you a headache or nausea. But the possible dangers of a well-executed VR experience have received comparatively little attention.

In CNET in 2016, Scott Stein warned that a high-end home VR rig—the kind that tracks you as you move around—poses all kinds of little accident risks. Even when taking reasonable precautions, you’re liable to trip over a cord, bump into a wall, or even punch your TV screen. To mitigate this, HTC’s Vive headset alerts you when you get too close to a real-world obstacle. It also offers a front-facing camera that lets you see what’s in front of you without removing the device.

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My Samsung CES experience, however, suggested a risk of a different kind and magnitude. Being fully absorbed in virtual reality could be deadly if it prevents you from recognizing an emergency transpiring in the actual reality around you. Such situations may be rare, but when they happen, a few seconds could make the difference between survival and tragedy.

One possible solution would be for the makers of VR technology to build in some kind of emergency notification system, or even a remote kill switch. Samsung, HTC, and others have features that allow you to view messages and even take calls on your headset. But especially in a public VR theater setting, they’ll need a more direct way of reaching everyone at once.

It’s a cliché that yelling “fire” in a crowded theater can be dangerous in itself, because people might panic and trample one another to get out. But if cinemas begin to embrace virtual reality, one can imagine the opposite problem, in which someone yells “fire”—and nobody moves.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of CES 2018.