A construction worker has started her first day of work and is learning to weld using a virtual reality (VR) training module. The module lets her pick up welding tools and weld a metal beam in a virtual environment while giving her instructions on what to do at each step. She is not new to VR and had used it as part of an exposure therapy treatment program that helped her get past her fear of heights by exposing her to them in a virtual setting.
Despite her familiarity with VR, she is concerned about the information the employer might be collecting about her with the VR headset. She heard the VR headset collects information about her eye movement, which someone could use to infer sensitive information about her health and mental state. Yet she is grateful that VR is making such training more accessible and that recent expansion of broadband and 5G capabilities in her town made such VR programs possible. However, she is worried her town’s broadband expansion happened later than others in the region and exacerbated regional inequities.
After her training session, the construction worker receives a pair of augmented reality (AR) glasses. She is excited to use them because they overlay virtual labels over the boxes that she must move from place to place at the construction site. However, she is concerned that her glasses might also capture sensitive data about bystanders near the construction site on their way into a neighboring medical building and uncertain about what safeguards are in place to protect their privacy.
The construction worker heads home from work navigating with her AR glasses’ GPS. While listening to a local radio station, she hears a politician talking about whether industry has set the appropriate standards for immersive technologies and whether policymakers should intervene with new legislation and regulation. Her teenage son uses VR to socialize with his friends, but she is not sure the parental controls she put in place are enough to protect him from harmful content. As the politician finishes his talk, the construction worker thinks about her experiences with immersive technologies and wonders whether the industry and policymakers had been designing, deploying, and building policy around VR and AR tools with people like her in mind.
The fictional story above highlights how immersive technologies, like VR and AR, can affect regular people and some of the challenges and opportunities they present. Immersive technologies are gaining a mass audience, and people are using them for various purposes, including health care, retail, and manufacturing. Society must take time to think through the implications. Industry standards and government policy can play a critical role in shaping the development and use of these technologies.
The Bipartisan Policy Center partnered with the XR Association to bring together stakeholders and experts from civil society, industry, academia, and elsewhere to study and identify the relevant issues immersive technologies bring. The effort included public and private events to learn about the technology and the likely political debates that will arise over the coming years. BPC saw both exciting opportunities and potential as well as challenges and concerns that are critical to address proactively.
This report will summarize much of what BPC learned and provide some guidance on a path forward. BPC believes the challenges around issues, such as privacy and security, are real, but we also believe the technologies’ potential to improve quality of life and create economic opportunity are significant. We believe society should make strong efforts to ensure that the benefits of immersive technologies are broadly shared across the public. Finally, we believe that the technology will indirectly impact many who do not use it directly themselves.
Technology generally moves too fast for policymakers to fully react, but a proactive approach to identifying and addressing the challenges can still help minimize harm and maximize the benefits of technology. The issues in this report are only part of an opening conversation and not meant to be the final word. We hope others read this to help guide their thinking. The development of thoughtful policies for immersive technologies requires input from a diverse range of stakeholders and experts.
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