Monday, September 18, 2017

The Promise and Peril of Immersive Technologies

weforum |  The best place from which to draw inspiration for how immersive technologies may be regulated is the regulatory frameworks being put into effect for traditional digital technology today. In the European Union, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will come into force in 2018. Not only does the law necessitate unambiguous consent for data collection, it also compels companies to erase individual data on request, with the threat of a fine of up to 4% of their global annual turnover for breaches. Furthermore, enshrined in the bill is the notion of ‘data portability’, which allows consumers to take their data across platforms – an incentive for an innovative start-up to compete with the biggest players. We may see similar regulatory norms for immersive technologies develop as well.

Providing users with sovereignty of personal data
Analysis shows that the major VR companies already use cookies to store data, while also collecting information on location, browser and device type and IP address. Furthermore, communication with other users in VR environments is being stored and aggregated data is shared with third parties and used to customize products for marketing purposes.

Concern over these methods of personal data collection has led to the introduction of temporary solutions that provide a buffer between individuals and companies. For example, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s ‘Privacy Badger’ is a browser extension that automatically blocks hidden third-party trackers and allows users to customize and control the amount of data they share with online content providers. A similar solution that returns control of personal data should be developed for immersive technologies. At present, only blunt instruments are available to individuals uncomfortable with data collection but keen to explore AR/VR: using ‘offline modes’ or using separate profiles for new devices.

Managing consumption
Short-term measures also exist to address overuse in the form of stopping mechanisms. Pop-up usage warnings once healthy limits are approached or exceeded are reportedly supported by 71% of young people in the UK. Services like unGlue allow parents to place filters on content types that their children are exposed to, as well as time limits on usage across apps.

All of these could be transferred to immersive technologies, and are complementary fixes to actual regulation, such as South Korea’s Shutdown Law. This prevents children under the age of 16 from playing computer games between midnight and 6am. The policy is enforceable because it ties personal details – including date of birth – to a citizen’s resident registration number, which is required to create accounts for online services. These solutions are not infallible: one could easily imagine an enterprising child might ‘borrow’ an adult’s device after-hours to find a workaround to the restrictions. Further study is certainly needed, but we believe that long-term solutions may lie in better design.
Rethinking success metrics for digital technology
As businesses develop applications using immersive technologies, they should transition from using metrics that measure just the amount of user engagement to metrics that also take into account user satisfaction, fulfilment and enhancement of well-being. Alternative metrics could include a net promoter score for software, which would indicate how strongly users – or perhaps even regulators – recommend the service to their friends based on their level of fulfilment or satisfaction with a service.

The real challenge, however, is to find measures that align with business policy and user objectives. As Tristan Harris, Founder of Time Well Spent argues: “We have to come face-to-face with the current misalignment so we can start to generate solutions.” There are instances where improvements to user experience go hand-in-hand with business opportunities. Subscription-based services are one such example: YouTube Red will eliminate advertisements for paying users, as does Spotify Premium. These are examples where users can pay to enjoy advertising-free experiences and which do not come at the cost to the content developers since they will receive revenue in the form of paid subscriptions.

More work remains if immersive technologies are to enable happier, more fulfilling interactions with content and media. This will largely depend on designing technology that puts the user at the centre of its value proposition.

This is part of a series of articles related to the disruptive effects of several technologies (virtual/augmented reality, artificial intelligence and blockchain) on the creative economy.