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Thinking Ahead About XR: Access, Inclusion, and Economic Issues

The Brief

Note: BPC has partnered with the XR Association to set up an XR Initiative to study the policy implications of immersive technology. On August 31, the BPC initiative hosted a private convening with academics, industry representatives, civil society groups, and other stakeholders to better understand XR access, inclusion, and economic issues. This convening followed Chatham House rules to encourage candor, so this post will not identify individual participants. The following piece highlights research that was done leading up to the convening and the convening itself.

New technologies like the internet and artificial intelligence often bring important policy questions around access, inclusion, and economic issues. The internet and broadband technologies have raised questions about access and the digital divide. Artificial intelligence has highlighted challenges with bias and inclusion. Online digital platforms have brought economic questions about competition policy. Properly addressing these issues can help fully realize the potential of the technology, while limiting the downsides.

Immersive technologies are similarly raising many questions around access, inclusion, and economic issues that we need to get ahead of through thoughtful deliberation. The Bipartisan Policy Center convened various stakeholders representing civil society, industry, and other relevant groups to discuss XR access, inclusion, and economic issues to help understand some of the debates we are likely to have in the coming years about these matters.

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What We Heard

The BPC convening featured broad discussions around access, inclusion, and economic issues, and it showed how interconnected these issues were. For instance, the cost of a VR headset serves as a barrier to access and inclusion, and it is also an economic issue. Additionally, while privacy and security were the focus of a previous convening, discussants regularly brought up these issues in the context of access and inclusion. For instance, several participants noted how addressing biometric data and bystander privacy issues were essential to build trust in the technology, ensure inclusion, and prevent harm.

Ensuring Access

The discussants focused on the digital divide as a significant access issue for immersive technologies since the foundational technologies needed to make XR work, like high-speed broadband, are a barrier for many. According to a report by Future Ready Schools, nearly 17 million schoolchildren in the United States do not have internet access at home. The group expressed concerns regarding the inability to solve the current high-speed internet access issues and its impact on the adaption of XR technology. Participants suggested that the adoption of personal computers in the 80s and 90s provide clues on how to make XR adaption more accessible. Discussants debated the role of industry and government in ensuring accessibility and proposed tools like industry commitments, public-private partnerships, and government investments as ways to achieve this goal.

The convening featured conversation about how open XR platforms should be with some focus on current debates around today’s online digital platforms. Participants discussed the effects of walled ecosystems like app stores and logins, limiting the ability to access software and experiences. A participant argued a system that is too open might have unintended consequences, such as exposing users to more harmful content, which prompted a debate around the degree of platform openness and its costs and benefits. Participants further discussed how industry standards and public policy could address high-risk areas and the most potentially harmful content. A participant argued for the industry to agree on standards about what type of content to allow on XR platforms.

Fostering Inclusion

The group explored both the potential and challenges of XR when it comes to inclusion. The group discussed how XR technology could provide access to places and experiences to people who currently cannot engage in those activities. For example, XR can provide virtual travel for people with mobility challenges. The use of XR for mental health therapy was also discussed as a potential benefit, with examples such as using VR to help people overcome their fear of heights through exposure therapy in the virtual world. The group also discussed other opportunities for inclusion like the ability to create highly customizable avatars, inclusive design of hardware, operating system, and apps, including people with disabilities and race and gender. The discussants expressed the need to help people that may not be experienced with technology feel more comfortable using the XR tool. A participant suggested teaching people about XR and creating training tools for non-tech savvy individuals as a way to address this challenge.

The participants also talked about barriers to inclusion and how many biases and exclusionary practices in the real world and on the internet that affect and harm marginalized groups can translate into the immersive space. They discussed the need to design XR products inclusively from the start and include a diverse range of people when developing and testing these tools. Further, participants mentioned how it’s important to include people who are not early adopters of the technology and those that don’t want to use technology, especially given issues like bystander privacy concerns with AR glasses. A participant noted that VR technology generally requires vision, hearing, and hand mobility and that XR hardware and software are currently not well-designed for people who use assistive technology. A couple of participants argued that to make people feel more welcomed and included, the culture around VR technology needs to change, so it’s not centered around gamers, an unrepresentative segment of the population. They suggested that industry advertising may play a role in addressing this matter.

The Economics of XR

Convening participants discussed how immersive technology has and will continue to reshape the economic landscape. The cost of XR technologies came up with some pointing out that many won’t be able to afford XR tools. A participant argued that the benefits of XR should not be overpromoted if most people will not be able to afford it. Another participant wondered what role advertising and selling data will play with immersive technology and what alternative business models could potentially take their place. Further, participants raised the potential benefits and challenges of XR tools in the workplace. Some highlighted how XR is being used to train workers through simulations and foster collaboration in virtual workplaces, especially during the pandemic. However, some raised worker privacy and safety issues and expressed concerns about employees’ overly intrusive monitoring of workers and worker safety while using a VR headset for training.

Further, a debate arose about how XR will affect the future of work with topics of job creation and loss, evolving business models, and the role of economic policy. A participant noted that having such debates now will be speculative, but it would be wise to get the workforce ready to take advantage of any benefits and address any challenges. A participant also highlighted the need to explore further how XR can help facilitate hybrid communication, collaboration, and telework. Participants proposed ideas such as skill-building initiatives at universities, public-private partnerships, and vouchers for training programs to help prepare the workforce. Discussants also raised other economic issues to further explore and address, such as intellectual and digital property rights, U.S. competitiveness in the XR industry, and competition policy.

Potential Solutions Discussed

Participants provided multiple ideas throughout the convening to address the issues discussed and expressed general agreement about the need for tech companies to design XR products with inclusivity and broader society in mind from the start. While participants did not reach a consensus, several possible solutions were proposed including national privacy legislation, guidelines for inclusion, regulation of the platforms, best practices communication, and disclosure requirements. Further, participants suggested industry commitments, vouchers programs, tax breaks, public-private partnerships, university classes, and government programs as other ways to address issues like providing better broadband access and training workers. Finally, a discussant mentioned how existing regulations, such as those protecting people with disabilities, are an area worth reviewing to determine if they are adequate or have gaps.

Conclusion

Digital technologies have raised access, inclusion, and economic issues, and with the rise of immersive technologies, it is critical to continue and expand these discussions. If we want an inclusive economy and to build trust in immersive technologies, we must address these issues in a meaningful way. Our discussion highlighted the importance of broadband access, inclusive design for XR products, and the economic opportunities and challenges immersive technologies bring. Further, it reiterated the importance of addressing privacy and security concerns people have about the new technologies. Immersive technologies have great potential to benefit society, but they require thoughtful policy to guide their development in an inclusive manner that minimizes harm and maximizes the benefits for the broader community, including those that don’t use the technologies. We believe further discussion and research are necessary to understand the nuances better to help achieve this goal.

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