5 VR/AR STL Association Members Explain Their Ethical Concerns With XR

Privacy is a top of mind concern for experts in the XR industry as spatial computing advances the possibile applications of virtual reality and augmented reality technology.

Estimated reading time: 4 minute(s)

At a recent VR/AR Association STL meetup, the audience raised a few ethical concerns about AR/VR/XR tech. The conversation was fascinating but there was simply not enough time to get into all the details, so we followed up with the five panelists to revisit the discussion.

As always with our Voices series, EQ asked everyone the same question: (Answers have been lightly edited for clarity and are posted in the order received)

Pretend like I’m 5 years old, can you explain the ethical concerns that you have grappled with as you jumped into XR? What concerns did you overcome?

Ian Renz, Founder of ShowMeVirtual, St. Louis’ first immersive media agency.
Since ShowMeVirtual is in the marketing field, we knew from day one that privacy would be an important issue for us.

People are already very sensitive around marketing, and specifically targeted advertising as it relates to things you might have said in a text message or searched for in Google. When you use VR & AR headsets like the Oculus Rift or the Microsoft Hololens, you are not only inviting cameras and sensors in your home or office, but allowing these devices to measure things like the size of your environment, or what and where you are looking, and more.

As a result, there have been many debates over the last five years in the immersive media industry as to the extent of what data is being tracked, what’s ultimately done with this data, and how this may change moving forward. It’s a debate that isn’t too wildly different than the conversation that happens around smart phone privacy.

The most important thing you can do as a brand to make your audience feel comfortable is to ensure they are always opting in to anything that could capture personalized data, rather than forcing them to opt out after the fact.

James Kane, Immersive Tech Lead at Paradowski Creative
The sensors and computer vision models underpinning XR technology can scan any environment in real-time 3D, producing a wealth of data about you and your surroundings for processing by AI and machine learning inference.

This is already happening and the detail and resolution of this data will only increase over time. So we have to think very carefully about giving access to this information to global-scale tech companies that already struggle with basic ethics around data ownership and privacy.

That said, you have to be an optimist to work on emerging tech, so it’s incumbent on people in this industry to imagine a future where this data isn’t misused, but is instead safely put to work serving us. It’s actually incredibly useful to have a pixel-perfect reproduction of my surroundings – this will allow for undreamed-of applications and experiences – so we’re obliged to build towards a future where the privacy and security of that sensitive data is paramount.

Sarah Hill, Founder & CEO of Healium and co-organizer, making guided meditation escapes in XR to counter acute stress with biofeedback.
Trust, privacy, and safety will define the success of XR technologies.

What happens when you use your phone for mobile AR or a VR headset to scan your room? Who else can see your room?

XRSI.org is a new organization working to strengthen and develop best practices for developers, game companies, and headset manufacturers. They’re working to address data security, cybersecurity, and start a conversation around protecting the data of XR users.

Don Harvey Jr., Co-Founder of HarvinAR, focused on the industrial design and manufacturing space.
A big challenge our Harpra Platform was faced is for it to be successful it requires our Clients to provide proprietary information for displaying in the real world.

Our app takes CAD Files and displays them as holograms, and quite a bit of our clients either do not have the skill set or bandwidth to convert and prepare them into Holograms, so that work is given to us to do on their behalf. That means our clients need to provide us with these CAD Files, which is a big challenge to overcome, because if these CAD Files fall into the wrongs hands (say, a competitor) then they have the building block to produce whatever the CAD File contains— and that could be a multi-million dollar piece of equipment or a pivotal component that distinguishes them from their competition.

Michael Southworth, VP of Technology & Co-Founder of Sentiar, using AR to visualize the heart during surgical procedures.
We as humans trust that seeing is believing and XR is poised to fundamentally change how we see and interact with the world around us.

I think as a technologist, I tend to focus on the promise of a platform and I think it is easy to think that the ethical concerns in other industries (e.g. social media) could have been avoided with the appropriate foresight. I think in that respect, it is naïve to think that XR can avoid those same pitfalls, but I think it is heartening to see that the industry (VRARA, IEEE, etc) is at least trying to rally around the potential ethical implications of XR.

Just think about all of the unintended consequences of the mobile phone in terms of privacy and social engagement; the explosion of the use of the internet and mobile apps have made us always engaged online, and therefore always trackable in both the physical and digital world. It has made us simultaneously more connected and less engaged with our social lives.

Now imagine we take those same technologies, and give it even more access to how we see and interact with the world around us. The promise and danger of head-mounted displays is that now more than ever, they can not only observe our world around us, but influence how we see, hear and interpret our environment. For example, to improve frame rates of displays, eye tracking can predict where you are looking before your eyes even get there, that is both amazing, and a little unnerving to think how much more technology will attempt to predict about you.