When someone suffers a seizure in real life, it can be an intense, scary experience. When someone suffers a seizure during a VR chat, it can be even more terrifying.
This is the exact scenario that Sam Raiffeisen, otherwise known as YouTuber Rogue Shadow, found himself in recently. While playing VRChat, a multiplayer app where people can hang out with bizarre avatars and take part in simple games, one of the users suffered a seizure.
“We’re so used to technology enabling us to do more, but in this case it was the opposite,” Raiffeisen said over email. “The main feature of VR is immersion, and the way this person seemed to be right in front of us in this agonizing state gave the impression that there must be something we could do, that’s what my instinct kept telling me, but the logical answer was we couldn’t do anything.”
That user is believed to have the username DrunkenUnicyclist. He was wearing a full body-tracking VR kit at the time, and so all the people gathered in the virtual space saw him collapse and shake his limbs in the manner of a seizure, and heard him rasping for breath through his microphone. DrunkenUnicyclist appeared as a damaged, red robot.
The video, uploaded by Raiffeisen with the permission of DrunkenUnicyclist, captures the tense confusion of the moment when the group collectively realized that the person was going through something serious. Outpouring of support and concern dominated the conversation as they all stood around the fallen avatar. But quickly the helplessness of the situation settled in as players did not know what they could do.
A few people spoke up with opinions about seizures, but largely the group circled the avatar trying to find ways to contact him IRL and assess the situation. Some even suggested giving the virtual avatar “space” so as not to crowd it.
“We didn’t even know what part of the planet this person lived on and all we could do was just observe.”
“It was definitely interesting to see the way people could come together and show concern for somebody they don’t know, but at the same time it was really weird because there was nothing we could do,” Raiffeisen said in a video he uploaded shortly after. “We didn’t even know what part of the planet this person lived on and all we could do was just observe.”
It’s a strange and touching scene as a deformed Sonic the Hedgehog, Morty from Rick and Morty, Hank Hill’s head on a Minecraft body, a psychedelic Wendy’s mascot, a giant Pokémon, and many more all try to find a way to assist the person behind the avatar.
And it lasted a long time. It took DrunkenUnicyclist over four minutes to come back from the seizure and disorientation to let the group know he was OK. Afterwards, the group gave an endearing rush of care and advice for DrunkenUnicyclist, making sure he reached out to someone and took it easy.
Raiffeisen got in touch with DrunkenUnicycle after the experience and learned that it was an epileptic tonic-clonic seizure, wherein a person “loses consciousness, muscles stiffen, and jerking movements are seen,” according to the Epilepsy Foundation’s website.
The situation surfaces some scary questions about the future of VR. With big companies like Facebook investing in it, the technology will only improve and the adoption rate will likely grow. That means that this will probably happen again.
“Users of VR should know that if they see another user showing signs of distress or harm, people need to either respond with concern or leave the situation,” Raiffeisen said. “[S]ome jokers were not taking the situation seriously, there were however a majority of bystanders that showed a lot of care and concern like myself, and I think that’s how it should be. It also goes to show how the VR community can come together to show concern for a complete stranger.”
It’s not clear if advances in VR technology will eventually protect users in these kinds of situations.
“We may see features for real life safety protocol implemented in applications, especially with social apps where many people gather and interact,” said Raiffeisen. “For example there may be a feature created where someone enters their emergency contact info into their profile, and that information is kept confidential, but an admin or moderator of a social platform could have the ability to have an automated message sent to that person’s ICE (in case of emergency) phone numbers letting them know the person using VR may be in need of attention.”
Beyond that, this experience really highlights the disconnect between the physical and the virtual. The current technology limits interaction to seeing someone’s actions, and letting you talk to them. There’s still space between users — and nothing makes that more clear than a situation like this. Technology has a long way to go before it closes that gap.
According to WebMD, if you see a person having a seizure try and protect the person from injury and guide them to the ground. Position them on their sides, but don’t put too much pressure on their body. Don’t force anything into their mouth, and don’t try to hold them down. Afterwards, give them room to rest and stay with them until they are awake and aware.
We have reached out to DrunkenUnicylist and will update if we receive a comment.