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26 October 2016

Lifting the Headset: Confronting public trust issues with Virtual Reality

Written by: Dominic Hung, Edelman Graduate 2015 at Edelman

Technology, Trust

The name Virtual Reality already represents two extremes – the false and the true. The VR experience is unprecedented, allowing a more intimate connection with technology and the media we not just consume, but step into and live.

Just as VR brings significant capability, however, so too does it herald significant challenges with public trust.

In a world of firsts, the not insurmountable problems VR faces from a social perspective are most assuredly not. If anything, they are old problems of distrust and fear, amplified by the unprecedented capability of the technology.

These are problems that have challenged the digital and technology sectors, increasingly so as our lives become more and more intertwined with them. With all the excitement over VR, it is now more important than ever to not lose sight of what the technology implies in relation to our society and our interactions with each other.

So what are some of the issues that VR faces? If we are to look at challenges that the digital sector face, we can identify a few:

Advertising Intrusion

When Facebook purchased Oculus for $2 billion USD in 2014, it caused significant concern amongst tech audiences, particularly around what ‘social’ would mean for a, to that point, hardware platform designed solely for gaming.

Even if this concern is unfounded, it still represents an important mindset – the increasing frustration with ads.

VR’s pull – unprecedented immersion – means that it will likely attract equally unprecedented advertising and marketing efforts. What better way to sell a product or service than through a medium which may offer a closer connection with it than through print or on a distant screen? With a headset, at present, audiences cannot simply flip a page or scroll past an advert either.

Combined with the inability to distinguish between true and false in VR – this can be an explosive mixture that may lead to hostility and suspicion. Unless carefully managed and monitored, advertising, or any interruptive monetisation within VR will be met with greater hostility than ever before.

Cybersecurity and privacy

As data hacking and privacy intrusions online become more and more commonplace, VR is unlikely to be exempt from that trend either.

VR, by definition, cuts off access to real world reality. It is what makes the experience so dramatically effective – by fooling our senses into believing it is actually within that created world.

It also means that we are at our most vulnerable. The idea that someone might intrude on us, in such an intimately personal experience meant for your eyes only, can be far more terrifying than vaguely knowing someone, somewhere has access to our data.

Closing off to the world

This is the most potentially controversial issue. The breakdown of relationships spans various potential scenarios: parents concerned about their children hidden away not only in their rooms but cut off from the rest of the world. As VR content becomes more widespread, cheaper and more frequently used, an evening spent in front of a screen might be behind a VR headset not just a laptop.

The growing inability, or even unwillingness, to distinguish between what is true and false. The widespread adoption of social media sparked these concerns – the widespread adoption of VR will develop them.

These may well be fears held by a small number of the general population, but they deserve to be addressed all the same.

A virtuous reality

Paranoia? Perhaps.

It’s important to recognise all the same the many positive impacts that VR is already having. It’s helping break new ground for journalists to share their stories. It’s been used to livestream surgery, giving medical students a new opportunity to observe and learn. Its’ given new experiences to those who would otherwise never be able to have them.

VR adoption rates stand at 43m users worldwide. Despite headsets becoming increasingly accessible, the majority of these users are innovators or early adopters. Accordingly they are its most ardent supporters, more vocal in praise than in criticism. As the market changes, so too will the issues.

Advertising, cybersecurity, privacy, the social implications of digital intrusion into our ‘real’ lives – all these are challenges that will be amplified by VR as its adoption becomes more widespread.

There is still time to take a proactive approach in communicating how VR fits in with wider society and why it is worthy of public trust. Both VR hardware companies, content developers and even the next wave of secondary industries that look to improve the experience for consumers are responsible for creating a safe space for all.

Whoever manages it best will be in a strong position to communicate beyond the technological advantage – they will be able to assuage social concerns, and earn the precious resource that is trust.

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