‘If we want virtual reality to have a positive impact, we need to start designing for this now.’ Photograph: Will Whipple for the Observer

It won’t be long, the technologists tell us, before we’ll all be vacationing in virtual reality. We’ll can the commute and hold meetings in virtual reality offices. We’ll hang out with our friends around virtual reality campfires, or attend virtual reality concerts. And at those gigs or football games, we’ll also run the risk of getting sexually assaulted.

On 20 October, Jordan Belamire (a pseudonym) wrote a Medium post describing how, while she was recently playing a VR game, another player groped her crotch. He’d heard her voice, you see, deduced that she was female, and decided to put her in her place.

In the total immersion that is VR, this violation felt worryingly real and very distressing. Belamire described it as sexual assault. She’d been sexually assaulted in real life before; the experiences were comparable.

As her post started to go viral, strangers informed her that she was overreacting: “You can’t sexually assault someone in virtual reality! It’s not actually real!” She was told she should stop whining about something that had just happened in a computer game. The backlash was so intense that it caused Belamire to suspend her Twitter account.

Can you be sexually assaulted in virtual reality? And can anything be done to prevent it? Those are a few of the most pressing ethical questions technologists, investors and we the public will face as VR grows.

And growing it is. According to Digi-Capital, there was $1.7bn worth of augmented reality/virtual reality investments in the 12 months to Q1 2016. Goldman Sachs Group has estimated that by 2025, the VR industry could be worth between $80 to $182bn.

A big ethical question

To understand the importance of VR in our future, we need to think of it not as an industry, but as an interface, a new way of interacting with the world. We’ve gone from desktops to mobile computing; the next step-change is VR. It can be hard to see this now: VR is still in its infancy and can be easily dismissed as gimmicky, or just for gamers. However, as the technology scales, the potential of VR is enormous. It could change our economy, our media, and how we live our lives.

What excites people about VR is its immersiveness. VR doesn’t just give you the opportunity of being in other places, it lets you put yourself in other people’s shoes. As such, it’s often been described as an “empathy machine”.

Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, has said that “feeling prejudice by walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is what VR was made for”. Charities are leveraging VR’s empathy equity to help people understand what it’s like to be a refugee. The NFL is using it for diversity training. As such, VR has enormous potential for good. But, as Belamire’s experience also illustrates, it also has potential for very real harm. Think about the harassment that women and minorities are routinely subject to online today.

Now think about that in virtual reality. If we’re not careful we could end up amplifying the divides and inequality in the real world in a virtual one; we could effectively make VR a no-go area for anyone who isn’t a privileged straight white man.

If we want virtual reality to have a positive impact on our actual reality, we need to start designing for this now, anticipating the potential for harassment and discrimination in VR and finding ways to stop them. We need to avoid the mistakes that were made when social media networks were developed.

The most important way to do that is ensuring that the people who are creating VR technology and content are from a diverse set of backgrounds. After all, what we get out of VR depends on what we put into it.

Amelia Winger-Bearskin, a technologist, says we are at a turning point with VR “where the way we interact computationally with the world is going to shift. If we don’t have diverse people in the beginning of that conversation then we will just increase this gulf that we have between people who are able to be part of that conversation and those who aren’t.”

A bug in the matrix

Diversity has been a bug that an overwhelmingly white, male Silicon Valley has been trying to fix for several years, so far unsuccessfully. Defending themselves against their dismal diversity numbers, tech companies often like to focus on the “pipeline” problem: that there simply aren’t enough skilled minorities to hire in the first place.

However, they don’t have that excuse with virtual reality. Because VR is in its infancy, it’s still a fairly flat playing field when it comes to who is equipped to break into it. We’ve got a chance to fix that pipeline from its start. And, to be fair, tech companies seem to be rising to the occasion.

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Earlier this year Oculus, the Facebook-owned VR company, announced a diversity program called Launch Pad to attract the development efforts of “women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community”. Winger-Bearskin was selected to be one of around 100 Launch Pad Fellows and took part in a virtual reality bootcamp in May. Since then Oculus has mentored the fellows via online forums and will be announcing scholarships for select fellows in the next couple of weeks.

Apart from a spate of food poisoning that, one fellow told me, had large numbers of the diversity fellows violently vomiting in the Facebook bathrooms during the bootcamp, all seemed to be going very well with the Launch Pad program. Many of the fellows praised it as an example of how Silicon Valley should be thinking about and going about diversity. Diversity programs can often feel superficial or tokenistic but Launch Pad “didn’t feel like a charity”, said Aliah Darke, a diversity fellow. “It felt like ‘we have all these questions in VR and we need as many people solving these questions as possible’. It felt like they understood the value of diversity in helping to come up with novel ideas.”

Then on 22 September, news broke that Palmer Luckey, Oculus’s founder, had been secretly funding a pro-Trump organization called Nimble America, a shady organization (which has now erased itself from the internet) dedicated to swaying the election Trump’s way through “shitposting”.

This basically involves troll armies overwhelming online conversations with inane memes. The idea being to derail conversations and, therefore, shut people up. It’s the opposite of an open internet. It’s the opposite of empathy.

Hitting back at the bro-gammer culture

Many people in the VR community look up to Luckey, idolize him even. He is a wunderkind who developed a groundbreaking VR headset in his parents’ basement then sold it to Facebook for $2bn in 2014. He’s one of the most influential people in VR and he’s only just turned 24.

Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus Rift, on the cover of Time magazine. Photograph: Time magazine

The idea that he might be aligned with the alt-right, a group that has been vocal in its hatred for many marginalized groups, caused widespread dismay.

Some developers said they would boycott Oculus as a platform. A number of the diversity fellows started to wonder how serious Oculus really was about diversity.

It didn’t help that, shortly after the news about Luckey broke, Amy Thole, Oculus’s diversity manager, emailed Launch Pad participants to say she was leaving the company. She was replaced by Ebony Peay, who had spent two years at Oculus as an executive assistant. It’s not clear whether this had anything to do with Luckey; neither Thole nor Peay responded to multiple requests for comment. Shortly after, Oculus also announced that it was delaying the announcement of the Launch Pad scholarship and the fellows have been frustrated at the lack of communication from Oculus since.

Some of the diversity fellows began to wonder whether it would feel right taking Oculus’s money anyway. Darke wasn’t one of these people. “My answer was, taking money from powerful white men that I disagree with is my happy place,” she told me over Skype. “I don’t think that marginalized people should deny themselves opportunities because of something foolish that a young white guy did.”

The problem, however, is whether marginalized people might end up being denied opportunities because of something a privileged white guy did. When influential people align themselves with extreme views, they help normalize them.

Jeris JC Miller, who at 60 is one of the oldest fellows on the Launch Pad, told me she believes that Luckey’s actions set “a precedent that misogyny, sexism, racism, implied racism is OK.” This has real ramifications on the working culture in tech which has a knock-on effect in diversity in tech and VR. “It’s really challenging to live and create in a bro-grammer culture. It’s hard. There’s an ethos and an ethic and a style of relating that in many cases is quite painful for women and minorities.”

Of course, Luckey is just one man. While he appears to still be employed by Oculus (neither Facebook nor Oculus responded to repeated requests for comment) he doesn’t necessarily represent their values, as Luckey made clear in an apology he posted after the news first broke.

What’s more, at the Oculus Connect developer conference earlier this month – from which Luckey was conspicuously absent – Oculus (and by extension Facebook) announced it would be spending $10m to fund diversity programs for VR.

At the same time as Facebook is throwing money at diversity and distancing itself from Luckey, however, it’s found itself dealing with Peter Thiel’s support of Trump. Thiel, an influential board member of Facebook, recently gave $1.25m to Trump. As this donation came in the wake of multiple sexual assaults allegations against the nominee, it was construed by some as condoning Trump’s actions.

Mark Zuckerberg has stood by Thiel; defending Thiel’s donation in an internal Facebook post, framing it as a question of “diversity”. Diversity of points of view, he said, was as important as diversity of background.

Zuckerberg’s reframing of diversity is worrying sophistry. Everyone is entitled to their view point, of course. But most people don’t have the resources, power and influence that the likes of Peter Thiel and Palmer Luckey do.

These are the people at the helm of building the infrastructure of tomorrow, who are leveraging technology to create a virtual world to their tastes. If Trump loses in November, his followers may well just build an alternative Trumpmenistan in the virtual world. And that will have a real effect on us all.