Seven Questions to Ask if You Have XR on Your Holiday Wish List
The holidays are right around the corner, and with so many of us sheltering in place in response to COVID-19, some are looking for an escape from the same four walls. Enter XR to help virtually transport us to new worlds, immersive games, and social interactions. XR, or extended reality, is an umbrella term for virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and other immersive technology. In 2020, we have seen increasingly accessible and affordable XR on the market, and undoubtedly much of this technology is at the top of holiday wishlists. But new tech raises new questions about the privacy and security of personal data. Below are seven questions consumers should be asking before buying an XR gift for a loved one (or themselves) this holiday season, along with answers to better understand the implications of jumping into virtual (or augmented) reality.
Top questions to consider when purchasing a gift for the holidays:
- What is XR anyway? And for that matter, what are VR and AR? Is there a difference?
- Will my XR system collect or share my data?
- Okay, but what does that mean for my privacy?
- Are there any safety risks?
- My kid has been asking me about an XR toy or game. Is it appropriate for children?
- Are there any psychological impacts associated with XR?
- What about inclusion? Is XR accessible for everyone?
1. What is XR anyway? And for that matter, what are VR and AR? Is there a difference?
The terms virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and extended reality (XR) are often used interchangeably but there are significant differences. XR serves as an umbrella term for AR, VR, and other immersive technology, but VR and AR are separate technologies that offer different experiences. Consumers should understand the differences between these terms prior to making a holiday purchase.
- VR: These systems seek to replace physical reality with a fully immersive digital environment, giving the user a sense of presence and making them feel like they are within and interacting in a virtual world. VR requires specialty hardware, most commonly using headsets that rely on spatial, audio, stereoscopic displays, and motion-tracking sensors to simulate a “real” experience. Users can also navigate within a VR experience through the use of haptic (or “experience through touch”) controls, hand gestures, or other movements. While VR has not yet reached the impressive feat of a Star Trek holodeck, such immersive experiences could be available to consumers in the future.
- AR: Unlike VR, which aims to replace the physical world with a digital one, AR imposes digital elements onto the real world so that the user experiences the digital elements within the context of their real, physical existence. Digital elements may include: video, graphics, sound, or other virtual content such as real-time commentary and annotations. Today, AR is most often accessed through smartphone cameras—as with the popular mobile game Pokémon Go, heads-up displays (HUD) in vehicles, and home gaming systems, such as the Nintendo Switch.
- XR: is most commonly used as an umbrella term for AR, VR, and other immersive technology. Other than AR and VR, XR technology includes mixed reality (MR), in which virtual and real-world elements interact with each other. Today MR is most commonly found in enterprise applications, rather than consumer devices, but could be increasingly targeted to consumers in the future. XR hobbyists should continue to watch this space for new developments and applications.
2. Will my XR system collect or share my data?
XR products collect personal information and other data about the user and how the user interacts with the product. Most immersive products must collect a large swath of data in order to function. Some estimates show that twenty minutes of VR use can generate approximately two million data points and unique recordings of body language, biometrics, or other physiological information. Unique recordings might include a user’s fingerprint, scans of hand or face geometry, iris and eye tracking, as well as other movement patterns, skin temperature, and heart rate. AR use may require a vast amount of spatial and mapping data to successfully overlay digital information onto images or video of private homes and public spaces. Thus the collection of location data as well as access to cameras and physical spaces occupied by the user is inherent in the product operations. Many XR systems also collect: name, address, email, IP address, and other personal information commonly collected by Internet-connected devices. In-product purchasing can add further details to an XR user’s profile, preferences, and interests.
Some XR providers share personal data with subsidiaries and third parties for a number of purposes—from improving content and informing future updates to using XR data for advertising and recommendations for online content.
3. Ok, but what does that mean for my privacy?
User privacy is impacted by data collection, use, and sharing involving XR technology. Data collected by XR systems can often be used to identify, analyze, track, or market to a particular user. Many leading consumer-focused VR headset manufacturers de-identify user data prior to sharing it with third parties, but risks can remain. For example, a recent study showed that a machine learning model trained on individuals’ head and hand movements during a five minute VR session could identify the original user with 95% accuracy based on this data alone.
Moreover, the analysis of personal data from VR users can reveal sensitive details about the user’s body and life. Much of the tracking experienced in VR involves biometric or biologically-derived information, such as head and hand movement, hand geometry (the measurement and dimensions of a user’s hands), fingerprints, eye gaze and movement, and gait. Because these details are associated with the human body, these elements typically cannot be altered by the user and can reveal intimate details about a user’s height, weight, or medical condition. Additionally, tracking a user’s movements, such as eye gaze, can reveal intimate details about a user’s physical or emotional reactions to content, including a user’s likes and dislikes.
As for AR, information about a user’s location is often collected, whether it be longitudinal or latitudinal coordinates, images or video taken by an AR app of a recognizable location such as a park or a restaurant, or the dimensions or images of a user’s home. Location information is sensitive when recorded over time, leading to inferences about a user such as where they live, work, worship, or seek medical care. Moreover, data collected within the home is historically considered sensitive as it could reveal personal information about the activities of a user or their family.
Companies’ data sharing practices should also be on users’ radar as potentially impacting privacy. XR providers may share data with third parties to serve ads to users both in XR environments and other digital contexts. The content of these ads could be largely based on how the user interacts with XR from the types of devices they access, experiences they choose to purchase or download, and how they interact with the technology.
4. Are there any safety risks?
XR developers are increasingly aware of the safety risks associated with immersive and emerging technology and have sought to address them. For example, when a user is fully immersed in a VR world, there is a risk that the user will trip over or bump into real-world objects or people. VR developers address these sorts of safety concerns by requiring the user to create virtual boundaries to prevent themselves from coming into unwanted contact with furniture, walls, and others. Additionally, many VR developers recommend at the start of an XR experience that users make certain they have a wide enough space to move limbs without obstruction to safely enjoy the experience. AR experiences can be safer, particularly when AR content does not obscure a user’s surroundings. But AR content experienced in public runs the risk of turning users’ attention away from other pedestrians, nearby objects, or even moving vehicles.
Other safety concerns include online harassment in social XR. Like with other social media, cyberbullying and harassment can impact XR social experiences. However, harassment and cyberbullying in VR can result in even more negative feelings than harassment in other forms of social media because of the immersive nature of VR. For example, reports have shown that women are often subject to harassment in VR by other users, sometimes leading them to choose non-gendered avatars in VR, or to opt-out of VR entirely. Developers recognize the potential for especially harmful harassment in VR and are taking steps to mitigate harassment through heavy moderation, reporting, and providing users with multiple ways to quickly exit a VR experience.
Relatedly, deep fakes and other manipulative or harmful content may be present in XR experiences. VR avatars today are generally cartoonish, rather than realistic representations. But it is possible that new risks will emerge as more realistic avatar technology permits malicious users to create or manipulate avatars depicting another person without their consent.
5. My kid has been asking me about an XR toy or game. Is it appropriate for children?
XR can provide fun, engaging, and educational experiences for children, but parents should be aware of age restrictions on XR products and applications. Consumer-facing VR headsets are typically directed to children at least 13 years old and are best enjoyed by teens and adults. On the other hand, many AR games and applications are directed to younger children and available on gaming consoles and other devices enjoyed by kids as young as elementary school.
Adults should be aware that the psychological impact of XR on children has not been widely researched, but some studies indicate that developing minds could be especially susceptible to negative content. Moreover, parents should be aware that cyberbullying and harassment of children and teens that occurs in gaming and on social media can be present in social and gaming XR experiences; this could be especially harmful given the sense of presence children and teens feel in XR.
Screen time is another major concern for many parents. Most VR experiences are designed for shorter playtime sessions than traditional video games—many titles clock in at around 30 minutes. Shorter XR sessions can help users avoid the nausea or other negative health impacts associated with extended XR experiences. Unlike traditional gaming, VR often involves movements of limbs and at times exercise through content that encourages movement, including fitness-specific content. On the other hand, AR content experienced on smart devices and more traditional gaming consoles are often intended for longer and sometimes less active engagement. Parents concerned with screen time will want to consider how XR will reduce, increase, or have little impact on children’s total screen time.
6. Are there any psychological impacts associated with XR?
Researchers are just starting to unpack the psychological impact of XR. However, thought leaders have pointed to potential positive psychological impacts of XR, especially VR, as being the ultimate empathy machine. Imagine, for instance, the ability for a user to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” in an immersive environment to gain a greater understanding of someone else’s lived experience leading to educational and engaging content. However, consumers should consider that the sense of presence users feel in immersive XR might also trigger negative, strange, or uncomfortable emotions in some situations. Additionally, XR can influence the ways in which some users walk, interact with others, and concentrate in real life, for good or for ill. Relatedly, some studies point to XR potentially resulting in body ownership illusions and body dysmorphia.
More research is needed in this area for consumers to gain a better understanding of how activities in the virtual world may impact life offline. Users would be wise to be cautious, and contemplate on their own how their online behavior in XR impacts their offline behavior, thoughts, and feelings.
7. What about inclusion? Is XR accessible for everyone?
Many XR developers are currently working to create inclusive experiences for a diverse group of users far beyond the early adopters of VR technology. Early adopters often skew well-off, tech-savvy, and largely male. But XR technologies can bolster inclusion, representation, and diversity. For example, some social VR platforms are adding a wider range of customizable avatar features, including a greater range of skin tones and virtual clothing such as hijabs.
Beyond increased representation of avatars, some developers are making hardware changes to make the technology more accessible. For example, a developer recently designed a specialty VR head strap made to more comfortably fit Black women with larger hairstyles and head wraps, rather than the more restrictive head strap that comes standard with most VR headsets. Researchers are designing XR technology that better maps to women’s’ physiology to mitigate the higher rates of cybersickness experienced by women when VR headsets cannot properly adjust to fit their field of view and distance between pupils, which often differs from that of men. Other hardware developments include increasingly lighter headsets that allow for better mobility and more comfortable wear, especially important for older users and users with limited muscle coordination.
Additionally, VR developers are introducing an increasing number of headsets that are both more user friendly out of the box and are offered at lower price points. Popular consumer VR headsets are available as stand alone devices that no longer need to be tethered to an advanced gaming PC. Many of these headsets are now available at a price point more akin to other gaming consoles on the market.
Further, there is increasing recognition that XR can provide engaging experiences for the disability community. For example, users with limited mobility could enjoy virtual content that seemingly transports them to another location that was previously inaccessible. More research, study, and development is required to make XR accessible for everyone, but consumers should be aware of the current efforts to make XR accessible to an increasing number of individuals and communities.
The above questions and answers represent just a handful of the many questions, concerns, and fascinations expressed by consumers looking to purchase an XR experience for the holidays. There are already many XR devices, applications, games, and other content on the market with more on the way. New, improved, and never-before-seen XR technical feats will debut at major events, such as January’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), but the above questions and answers will equally apply. While stakeholders should continue to promote responsible XR, consumers would be wise to familiarize themselves with the potential risks and benefits of XR this holiday season and beyond.
*Image courtesy of Darlene Alderson from Pexels, available here.