It started out with gamers immersing themselves in virtual worlds, but now the promise of a true imagination economy seems imminent.
Extended reality (XR) is breaking beyond the hype to create opportunities across sectors and walks of life. But with the opportunities come profound risks.
Having wised up to the privacy and security concerns of today’s technologies, business leaders in Metro D.C. and around the world must adopt responsible approaches before XR becomes a part of our everyday lives.
The end of a hype cycle
Extended reality includes virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and a growing range of immersive technologies. Within a few years, touch, taste and smell will be incorporated into immersive experiences, helping to change the way we interact with each other and with the world around us.
These advances, combined with the global rollout of superfast 5G networks, will unleash enormous investment as a wave of XR business cases finally become technically and financially feasible. Already this year, industry spending on AR and VR is set to overtake consumer spending, and it will be nearly triple the rate of consumer spending by 2023.
Further trends are converging, which together signal the end of this first XR “hype cycle.” For example, in the healthcare industry, the number of patent applications for VR and AR innovations exploded in the later 2010s, while startup funding for XR grew 237%.
A world of opportunity
Across the D.C. Metropolitan region, businesses and government agencies alike are beginning to recognize and capitalize on the potential of extended reality technologies, as highlighted in Accenture’s new report. Remote brain surgery is just one application that is already being tested today. In March this year, Ling Zhipei performed China’s first remote, 5G-supported brain surgery on a patient who was more than 1,800 miles away. XR tools are also gaining steam in mental health therapy, including the treatment of trauma, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
XR is also changing the way organizations train people, by providing hands-on experiential learning.
We at Accenture recently designed a virtual reality (VR) training experience that uses immersive storytelling and interactive voice-based scenarios to transform how caseworkers evaluate child welfare. Known as the Accenture Virtual Experience Solution (AVEnueS), this tool is being deployed around the country to help keep children safe by empowering social workers to more effectively engage, observe, decide and interpret signs of safety and risk.
Regional companies are already applying technologies such as AR and VR to attract more diverse talent and create more inclusive hiring processes. Ultimately, immersive technologies could help employers find out more about a candidate’s qualifications, while reducing the influence of human bias.
The federal government is also experimenting with these technologies: In October 2017, the U.S. General Services Administration launched the Federal Virtual/Augmented Reality Program to help identify key areas where these virtual and augmented reality could help improve performance, such as training and improving workforce efficiency. According to recent research from Accenture Federal Services, 86% of federal executives feel it will be important to leverage extended reality, while 40% indicated that removing distance barriers is a driver in their adoption of XR solutions.
Our role in a braver new world
The opportunities brought by XR to the local economy seem boundless. But, as with all new technologies, these opportunities are matched by equally formidable risks. Personal data misuse, fake news and cybersecurity threats could be magnified to new levels in a world with XR. In addition, these technologies bring an entirely new set of more daunting dangers that could threaten our individual, mental and societal wellbeing.
Today, for example, personal data relates to items like our credit card numbers or records of our purchase histories. But immersive technologies track far more intimate data: our feelings, judgments, reactions and broader set of traits that make us who we are. Imagine what could happen if that information were to fall into the wrong hands.
Concern over fake news could turn to fake experiences. Consider a news source taking us to a controversial war zone through a virtual experience. As we see and feel the horrors of battle, how certain will we be that the experience has not been falsified or embellished to influence our opinion?
Where trolls may bully people through social media posts today, their avatars could “physically” intimidate users tomorrow. And antisocial behavior in virtual environments could easily leak into the real world. In Shanghai, an online gamer claimed his cyber-sword was illegitimately sold by another player. His efforts to report the incident as theft were rejected by police, but not before he stabbed the alleged offender in the real world. How will behaviors in the virtual world change our real-world characters and society?
Last month, the World Health Organization officially classified video gaming addiction as a formal health disorder, and scientists are evaluating other mental health conditions that may become prevalent as we spend more time in virtual environments. We simply do not yet understand the mental health implications for individuals.
At a societal level, spending more time in “perfect” virtual worlds means spending less time in the real world, including the rubbish, pollution, homelessness and social exclusion we would otherwise see. The risk is that it becomes easier for citizens to disengage from the complicated and messy realities of life, and their civic obligation to improve it.
Responsible by design
How can local businesses and government leaders get ahead of these risks?
Firstly, responsibility and ethics must be designed into the way XR tools are built and deployed, including the services and business models that use them. That means establishing early warning systems and a culture that constantly questions the impacts of today and tomorrow. It requires drawing on a diverse range of experts — such as neuroscientists, mental health experts and behavioral theorists — to anticipate and plan for potential consequences of these technologies. And it means finding opportunities to responsibly supercharge workers through XR tools, including opportunities to upgrade the work of those most vulnerable to automation.
These tools will soon enter our daily lives. The risks are too serious to let things play out and fix them later. Retrospective responsibility costs dearly. For local organizations across the public and private sector, the full potential of extended reality can only be achieved by proactively identifying and navigating potential risks before they can cause harm.