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Thinking Ahead About XR: End Users

Note: BPC has partnered with the XR Association to set up an XR Initiative to study the policy implications of immersive technology. On January 27, the BPC initiative hosted a private convening with academics, industry representatives, civil society groups, and other stakeholders to better understand the challenges and opportunities immersive technologies create for end-users. This convening followed Chatham House rules to encourage candor, so this post will not identify individual participants. The following piece highlights research leading up to the convening and the convening itself.

Introduction

Throughout this series of XR convenings, we have assessed opportunities, challenges, and policy questions immersive technologies raise. Today, XR is becoming more accessible to the general population, prompting our discussion for this final convening to address matters affecting those directly using the technology. XR end-users include governments, businesses, and the broader society using immersive technology for various purposes outside of just gaming. The Bipartisan Policy Center convened stakeholders representing civil society, industry, and other groups to discuss XR’s end-users and the role of policy in addressing issues affecting them, like privacy, security, and safety.

Who are the End-Users of XR?

Immersive technologies have a quickly expanding userbase. According to a report by Insider Intelligence, the virtual reality (VR) userbase topped 50 million people in 2020 and could grow to more than 65 million users by 2023. Meanwhile, the augmented reality (AR) userbase may grow from 80 million to 110 million people in that same timespan.

Coinciding with this expanding userbase is increasing applications of immersive technologies far beyond gaming and entertainment. For example, employees use XR to adopt new skills to train for a job; patients access new therapy and treatment methods through XR; students use XR for educational purposes; customers use XR for personal uses such as fitness and retail. Customers have more opportunities to apply XR to their areas of expertise or personal lives.

Convening Exercise

At our convening, participants identified real-world use cases of XR. They contributed dozens of examples of the ways XR is used in society today. From the medical field to the military, it became clear that a diverse set of stakeholders use XR. Though not an exhaustive list of use cases, this brainstorming exercise achieved its goal of demonstrating the wide range of users that exist today.

The group selected four use cases to examine the benefits, limitations, and challenges of these scenarios to the end-user. The first use case looked at automobile manufacturers’ use of XR in prototype design. In the second scenario, the group examined how firefighters train for emergencies in virtual environments. In the third scenario, participants assessed the use of XR by children in educational settings. Finally, in the fourth scenario, participants examined XR used by patients for therapeutic treatment such as exposure therapy for PTSD.

In all four scenarios, convening participants identified specific instances XR positively impacts society. Participants expressed how XR may improve user safety because it simulates potentially dangerous environments such as manufacturing facilities and fire training exercises. Convening participants also highlighted scenarios when the technologies could promote inclusivity and access by empowering users with disabilities to participate in educational experiences or helping marginalized patients in remote areas access therapeutic treatments. Additionally, participants pointed out that the digital nature of immersive technology experiences can help users save on resources and costs, such as materials used in manufacturing prototypes.

In the scenarios, participants also identified challenges and limitations the technology poses that could limit its benefits and pose certain risks. The group highlighted privacy concerns across all four scenarios and specifically pointed to bystander privacy issues related to the firefighter training scenario. They also mentioned confidentiality challenges in the workplace, specifically in the manufacturing and health care settings. Additionally, participants raised concerns about potential health risks and the need for more research, specifically on children using XR devices in education settings. Other technical limitations were also mentioned, such as a simulated environment for fire safety training may not look and feel exactly like the real emergency and therefore put first responders in XR trainings at a disadvantage.

Subsequently, participants discussed when existing standards, regulations, and guidelines apply to immersive technologies and their role in protecting users and enhancing the benefits of the technologies. In the manufacturing scenario, some participants identified labor laws and workforce protections as safeguards for individuals using XR in the workplace. In the firefighter training scenario, participants considered funding for research and development to enhance the technology’s application. They also mentioned child safety standards regarding the education scenario, including child privacy laws, content moderation, and parental guidance. In the scenario on XR in therapeutic treatments, the group indicated healthcare-specific privacy laws and health insurance as two areas impacting the patient.

Further Discussion

Participants discussed common themes and priorities to create a better and safer end-user experience. After closely examining the four scenarios presented above, participants identified opportunities where government policies and industry standards would benefit many uses of immersive technology. Participants also identified gaps in current policies and areas where additional research can help enhance the end users’ experience with XR and mitigate unintended consequences.

Discussion followed on how the US could modernize existing government policies and standards to account for the rise of XR. Policies that suit one set of technologies may need to be reviewed and updated for emerging technology. For instance, participants suggested a review of labor laws could ensure they are adequate for immersive technology.

Some participants considered how new policies and standards, in some areas, could provide additional protection for end-users. In particular, many participants noted the lack of overarching privacy laws to protect consumers throughout our convening. Some participants also mentioned and discussed gaps in content moderation, child safety standards, and data portability and interoperability. As applications of immersive technologies continue to expand, the US needs more consideration about the use of governance, standards, and regulations to protect end-users.

Additional research is needed to understand all benefits and challenges of XR on the end-user. Some policy and governance gaps listed above exist due to a lack of consensus on the issues and potentially a need for greater research. At the convening, participants identified current uses of XR that should be further studied. Some examples include the use of immersive technologies by children and any potential impact on brain development, the efficiency of XR tools to help people with PTSD and other therapeutic treatments, and how well immersive training can prepare users for real-world experiences.

Conclusion

This convening should serve as a launchpad for further discussions about the needs of XR end-users and the proper role of regulations, policies, and standards. A better understanding of the XR userbase will help stakeholders appropriately develop and apply policies and standards that help address the issues we identified in this convening. BPC looks forward to continued discussions to help achieve a more equitable, inclusive, and safe technology.

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