Challenges In XR

Field Notes #4

When I think of challenges in the world of XR, it brings to mind either the slow adoption of technologies and headsets that power it, or more specifically with VR the downturn in investment (or ‘trough of disillusionment’). Or it brings up fascinating discussions on nausea with friend and colleague Yates Buckley.

He told me about several distinctly different forms of VR-related nausea, all caused by different technical or behavioural issues. Fascinating! But those topics aren’t for today.

Image: Daliah L. Ammar

Ultimately, with the enthusiasm with which all of us embraced social media platforms and startup technology in the past decade or so, most of us never predicted the unintended consequences they came with, and they turned out to have quite a dramatic impact on society as a whole. Things like… you know, infrastructure, democracy, mental health, etc.

So are there similar snakes in the grass within the XR spectrum, at this early larval stage?

Out of curiosity I googled something like: bad things that happened because of VR and AR, and a few other similarly worded sentences.

This could have easily turned into a list of silly technology horror stories, or just be unnecessarily negative to the XR space. I hope this doesn’t read like it does either of those things.

My goal in researching this topic was to identify challenges within the XR medium and maybe through awareness, make better experiences in future.

But this post definitely became longer than I had imagined, because many of these topics are actually complex, and are caused as much by human behaviour as the technology. And context is important when thinking of big challenges.

In the end, most returns to my searching were videos of people falling over, hitting someone in the head, or running into a wall while wearing a headset. Hilarious.

But I specifically did not mean that.

LONELINESS & ISOLATION?

And there were an equally large number of post-apocalyptic predictions of loneliness and isolation caused by VR use, which I personally don’t buy into. Sansar and VRChat alone have shown us that virtual communities can add to your social life in many wonderful and surprisedly fulfilling ways.

VR might often be a solitary experience, but it does not have to be lonely by any means. And solitary experiences can be powerful and valuable - enough with that crap people say that solitude is whats wrong with VR. Amazing books are solitary. Incredible films, games - all can be enjoyed alone! Nothing wrong with solitary.

But there were some interesting topics outside of that which the search results brought up, or which I was aware of previously. Many have been discussed by tech publishers from TechCrunch to Vice.

WASTE

To me one of the most obvious negative impacts VR will have is that it adds to the layer of technical waste that inundate our landfill sites as it is. Very little of the technology gadgets we buy are recycled (I think). And although I have no hard data, the numbers of headsets being produced and the number of new headsets that were announced in 2018 alone does make this a concern. It feels to me like VR is a high-turnover technology.   

Venture Beat writes that during the last quarter of 2018, Oculus lone shipped a combined 491,000 units of its Go and Rift headsets.

Obviously this is a fraction of the number of smartphones that become obsolete as we upgrade our way into the future, to name just one technology category. But it all adds up.

In this fascinating Gizmodo article, Maddie Stone sums up here how our collective tech waste is literally fusing with the natural world, creating what she called ‘technofossils’ and in essence making an imprint that will mark our time on this Earth in geological terms.

And the New Atlas calls it triggering a new geological epoch in this write up on the same subject.

ADDICTION

A lot has been said about both addiction in relation to games, as well as to the internet. Those are complex discussions which I am probably not qualified to draw specific conclusions about. I do think it is logical to extend the debate to include virtual and augmented reality, considering that they both fundamentally aim to literally change how we see from our eyes - as well as other senses! A big goal and surely, something which would affect us fundamentally, maybe even physiologically?

Big Think writes here that “while the vast majority of internet use is harmless, internet addiction is a real thing that can rewire the brain.”

HARASSMENT

Bullying and harassment are both extremely serious issues, in real life, and online. And it is important to acknowledge that they extend into the virtual and augmented reality space, especially with the rise of networked and social experiences.

There are a number of reasons why VR and AR have helped with these topics, as both this video about bullying (via Thomas Seymat) and this endeavour by Yusuf Omar to use Snapchat filters to help rape survivors speak out show. I think generally, anonymity is a powerful tool to help people speak out.

But players of both AltspaceVR and games such as QuiVr have experienced situations where players have been physically assaulted by others in the virtual world. Sexual assault in a virtual context is a new concept, but must be taken seriously as an issue by developers, in order for us to build-in systems that can deal with it proactively.

Henry Jackson and Jonathan Schenker, the developers of QuiVr, responded by giving their players new powers to protect themselves with a privacy bubble, as detailed in this article from Kotaku. This bubble pushes all other avatars avatars away from them. They also wrote in this Upload VR article about how they reacted to finding out about the virtual groping incident of one of their players.

EXCLUSION

Thanks to Anthony Clemens on Twitter, among others, I became more aware of how many experiences in the XR space do not take into account people with a range of disabilities. As an indie developer, just shipping an experience alone is a herculean task and so extending the reach of your product might seem like a non-priority. It wasn’t one for me and I regret that. As James Batchelor writes in gamesindustry.biz, accessible games can mean the difference between existing and living for disabled people. We can assume virtual, augmented and mixed reality belong in that same category.

His article details the efforts Microsoft put into its Xbox Adaptive Controller, a device that enabled disabled gamers to adapt standard control schemes with a variety of custom inputs suited to their unique circumstances.

It is a valuable step, and I especially admire Microsoft taking the initiative on behalf of its content creators that publish on their platform. More initiatives like this, applied to XR technologies in particular, would be welcome, and all developers could be more aware of smaller, more achievable ways in which we can extend inclusion and accessibility.

INJURIES

With people spending more and more time wearing heavy, head-mounted equipment, VR neck is becoming a thing, says Greg Kumparak writing here in techCrunch. If true, I am sure AR neck will be a thing soon also. But headsets are getting smaller so it is a non issue in the long term (as opposed to posture from smartphone use).

And Just Science notes here that eyesight problems could also be an issues as people perform new things with their eyes due to XR technologies.

“The screen is literally few inches away from your eyes all the time. It can cause eye fatigue.”

I am not aware of any definitive research that conclusively points to wearable devices being either bad or not-bad for your eyes. Or at least, I didn’t find any articles that reach that definitive conclusion. Looking on places like Quora, it seems the jury is still very much out, and the debate rages on, with people saying everything from it’s literally a screen strapped to your face, of course it’s bad! to I use headsets many hours a day and I feel fine.

If you’ve seen further research on this, please send it along, I’d love to read more about this.

DATA & PRIVACY

With eye-tracking becoming standard in new iterations of VR headsets being announced, game engines integrating with machine learning, and broader innovation in advanced tracking reaching Unity and Unreal Engine also, what we do in VR and AR is being tracked and logged in more detail than ever.

Just like privacy is an issue on social networks and the world wide web more broadly, what we do in VR and AR, and how we behave, is valuable to corporate companies and those data sets we generate are therefore also a product that could be sold without our knowledge and for-profit.

Matt Miesnieks, who is CEO and co-founder of 6D_ai, writes much better than I can about this, and the other values that are important to him in this Medium article worth your time.

“It’s not hard to paint a dystopian picture of our AR enabled future. Surveillance everywhere, data being sucked up and used for nefarious ends. No privacy. First, we need to bake our values in from the beginning.”

VR FOR BAD

A friend sent me a link to this tweet about a VR active-shooter training program by the company Walmart. Rob writes that a store clerk told him it was the only time he'd experienced VR.

It is certainly disturbing to live in a world where any kind of training to deal with crazy gun-people is necessary. But I scrolled down through all the comments in Rob’s tweet, and noticed a number of responses that were positive about the training, or that indicated that actual Walmart employees have not had to take that training at all.

What is true is that ‘there is a huge market for VR training for military or police use and it only makes sense that it’s become commonplace for other applications such as this’ as Greymond Dream points out in one of the replies.

HEALTH

This final section in this post is where I started to become slightly uncomfortable. However I think these two points are worth making, as I explain below.

One of the returns that came back from my original searching efforts was a YouTube video showing a user having an epileptic seizure while in VR. The video was posted by Rogue Shadow.

He writes in the notes below the video that this video was posted with the explicit, documented permission by the individual who had this seizure. Furthermore this individual was not harmed or injured before, during, or after this video and is perfectly fine at the time of this upload.

Other users in the same virtual room stand by helplessly, unable to do anything to really help. It’s pretty upsetting to look at and listen to. I think it is valuable to spread awareness of epilepsy, which developers should take into account when making content for wearable devices, although it is not clear to me if the seizure was caused by the experience. Either way, this is why broadcast television has advanced legislation as well as equipment that is used to measure the impact of content on viewers with epilepsy (put simply, no flash frames of less than 3 frames). No such rules or equipment exists in most production pipelines for XR content (correct me if wrong!).

And it also made me think of ways in which we might build in ways to trigger emergency services for someone who needs it, but might not be able to do this themselves. Would there be value in a kind of ‘red button’ mechanic, where without personal details being transferred, an ambulance could be sent to someone’s house? I guess this kind of idea is full of complications and can easily be misused.

And finally, Pokemon Go has hit the news a number of times for causing people to run towards dangerous situations in pursuit of rare creatures. The Washington Post wrote here in 2017 that research showed that traffic accidents increased when Pokemon Go came out. There is even a Pokémon Go death and injury tracker, and although I find it a bit sensationalist, and have no idea how accurate it is. But it is fairly shocking to imagine actual bodily harm occurring from something so fun and harmless.

The reason I include these links is that Pokemon Go is a hugely successful game and many people are trying to emulate the format (and profits). Ultimately, the fact that games and experiences get people out of their homes and into the wide open world is beautiful, and people should take responsibility for being careful themselves, just like with any other activity. I mean, sport is dangerous. Just walking down some stairs can be dangerous!

However, as AR wearables are on the cusp of becoming untethered from the home, I think these issues around Pokémon Go are really about a larger challenge for all of us content creators - which is that when we immerse people into our experience, when we partially or fully obscure the real world for our users, we have to take the trust that users or players place in us very seriously (as Niantic is proactively doing). Keeping them safe is a part of that contract.

Because there are a range of issues related to the content we make, and the technology it runs on, that we haven’t yet fully understood. Unintended consequences are often a product not of new technology, but a lack of research and proactive critical thinking.

As I said above, I found this fascinating to research but slightly tricky to write sensitively. And I did not even do very much research! I want to emphasize that the aim here was not to make any XR technology look bad, but to make myself aware of issues that might make me a better content creator. Hope it was interesting for you too.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these points, or other examples you’ve come across.

As always, thanks for reading.

Anrick