Famous VR developer Palmer Luckey recently developed a virtual reality headset rigged with bombs such that, if you lose the game, the headset explodes and kills the user. Per Luckey’s blog:
The idea of tying your real life to your virtual avatar has always fascinated me – you instantly raise the stakes to the maximum level and force people to fundamentally rethink how they interact with the virtual world and the players inside it. Pumped up graphics might make a game look more real, but only the threat of serious consequences can make a game feel real to you and every other person in the game. This is an area of videogame mechanics that has never been explored, despite the long history of real-world sports revolving around similar stakes.
We note that Luckey is only somewhat correct–the idea of physically punishing users for poor performance is not exactly new. For instance, way back in 2002, two German designers developed a form of Pong that painfully shocked users when they lost. The console (titled the “Painstation”) was, hopefully like Luckey’s user-killing VR headset, more of an art project than a real product destined for market. In fact, Luckey’s own blog seems to concede that his idea came from watching the anime Sword Art Online (and the title of the blog post itself references the hilariously-awkward line “If you Die in the Game, You Die for Real” line from the 2006 horror movie Stay Alive).
Though it might sound surprising, it is entirely legal to file a patent application for seemingly dangerous (if not outright murderous) inventions like Luckey’s user-killing VR headset. As detailed at length in my paper in the Georgetown Technology Law Review, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (the “USPTO”) once rejected “immoral” inventions. Along those lines, courts once invalidated patents that seemed morally questionable, such as patents directed to making cheap tobacco look expensive and patents directed to putting imitation seams into stockings to make them look more expensive. That legal doctrine applied by the USPTO and the Courts (that is, the so-called doctrine of “Moral Utility”) is long-since gone, and now virtually all matter of trickery can be included in a patent application. Nowadays, the USPTO’s utility requirement is mostly used as a weapon against inventions that are outright inoperative (e.g., an invention that doesn’t work at all for any purpose) and/or unbelievable (e.g., a perpetual motion machine). In other words, if Luckey wanted to, he could absolutely file a patent application for his user-killing VR device (though it might not fare so well against existing prior art, especially given how much Luckey admits his ideas came from anime).