As VR enters the consumer markets, who will control your reality?

We consider how the ownership of a person’s data might impact the future of your reality.

Image credit: The Verge

The surprise appearance by Mark Zuckerberg during the Samsung’s event at this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona excited not only journalists, but also technology fans around the world.

The hype around Virtual Reality (VR) is real and it’s hard to blame people — the idea that we might go to see a movie with a friend who lives on the other side of the world is truly exciting With virtual reality as Zuckerberg sees it, we’ll not only be able to chat on Skype, but also play zero-gravity ping pong; something Mark did with the President of Indonesia.

It’s not news that our appetite for technology is continually growing. We started with just text (makes me sentimental for my old, black-and-white Nokia 3210…), then we adopted photos, and now we’re in the world of video. With the speed at which current technological advances are going, why shouldn’t we be able to “share and experience whole scenes as if we’re just there, right there in person?”

Where can virtual reality technology take us?

Although Oculus was started with gamers in mind, it is clear that Facebook has far more varied ideas concerning its use. Its current focus being human interaction, is something very close to its heart as a social networking site. It’s likely, however, that it’s not just social and gaming interactions which will occupy virtual reality in the long-term. The ever-growing idea of the Internet of Things (IoT), a reality in which all the technology in your home will be connected — from your heater to your fridge — is slowly appearing before our eyes. Although it might sound abstract, it’s already partially here, with things like smart watches (e.g. the Apple Watch) that track your activity and heart rate, storing data which can easily be passed on to your doctor. It’s just another step between now and the ability to do your shopping in a virtual supermarket wearing a haptic suit and having the groceries delivered to your doorstep within a few hours. We’re currently taking big steps towards blurring the lines between what’s real and what’s virtual to an extent that we have never previously had to face.

The first virtual realities

Let’s take a step back and reminisce about the past. Although it might seem like a completely new idea, like much in the tech world, VR is simply a bigger and better version of something that people have been working on since as early as the 1980s; Jaron Lanier being one of the early advocates. Although those early ‘experiments,’ as Lanier calls them, didn’t end up evolving quite as far as Zuckerberg now promises us, they did bring about some quite interesting developments, such as SecondLife. Around ten years ago, SecondLife was a major talking point, with people spending hours in a world which didn’t even exist, including real-life businesses opening offices and shops in the SecondLife universe. Although its popularity was rather short-lived (you can still log in, though, if only you feel like it), it’s ‘games’ like this that gave us the biggest taste of what virtual reality of the future will look like — simply more real and all-encompassing.

Is the virtual world risk-free?

As anyone who ever played ‘The Sims’ probably knows, getting sucked into a virtual world can eat away at your time in a remarkable way. Before you know it, you’ve been creating your family of Sims, building and decorating their massive mansion (all with money you created using a cheat code), sending them to work or school, adopting babies and drowning them in the pool (don’t deny it!) for the best part of eight hours, and missed your Auntie Paula’s birthday party as a result. Although we feel like we’re always the ones in control of our activity, we’ve all had this “OMG, where did the time go?” feeling at least once in our lives whilst immersed in the virtual world of our computer. It seems like a reasonable price to pay for the joy of escaping the reality through SecondLife, The Sims, World of Warcraft (WoW) or League of Legends (LoL), but what we should think about is these games overtaking our real-world lives. If virtual reality enters more and more aspects of our life, ‘side effects’ such as eye strain, addiction or an increasing number of anti-social individuals might become all too real. Especially if in a few years it turns out you can’t buy milk outside of the virtual world…

‘I confirm that I have read and agreed to the terms and conditions’

How many times have you clicked ‘yes’ or ticked a box next to that statement without even thinking about looking at the T&Cs? What about the website’s privacy policy? How often do you read them before giving someone your details, from your name, through the date of birth to address? Probably very rarely or, indeed, never. You might think your data is completely safe with that site. However, try and remember if you have ever got an email from a company you never heard about, wondered where on earth they got your details from, only to scroll down and realise that they got it from their partner, the site you just handed your information to. What about those ads which show you shoes you looked at a few days ago, on a completely different, unrelated site? Understanding these things makes you start to think about what happens to your data on the Internet and how well it’s protected. Advertisers are already using whatever information about you they can get to deliver targeted ads (think Facebook and ‘sponsored content’ appearing in the middle of your feed, but others are doing it as well) and the more of our lives we move online, the more of our data will be in other people’s hands. With the emergence of full-blown Virtual Realities, you will have an unprecedented amount of your data online. That’s all fine if you’re aware of it and your data is stored safely, but the question arises: who actually owns your data? Is it actually you or is it not really your data anymore?

Richard Law, Chief Executive of identity management company, GBGroup, points out that according to EU law, data belongs to whoever collects and stores it as opposed to the person who submits it, which could lead to the simple conclusion that you don’t own the data you share online, you simply hand it over for free. A Virtual Reality of a science fiction kind (involving helmets and haptic suits) would not only collect information such as your email, but also things like the speed at which you move, how much you exercise and if you’re eating chocolates more than once a week. All of this could potentially be passed on to your insurance company, which would happily raise your insurance premium. (This could also lead to appearance of the whole new position of a digital manager, who would oversee your personal data. Although legislation to alter the current situation might be developed in the future, until such time you will have little control over what happens to your data online.

In its Privacy Policy, Oculus clearly states that they will not themselves sell, forward or rent your data without your consent, which is encouraging, but they quickly go on to say they are not responsible for the actions of third parties which will be accessed through the Oculus device, and it’s probably these third parties we should be more worried about. There’s also another issue, raised by Jaron Lanier, which not many people think about. As he said

“By suddenly changing a person’s avatar, you can change how they feel about themselves, how effective they are, how confident they are…. You can affect how they treat other people. You can really manipulate people because it’s so close to the bone or so close to the brain.”

And as scary as the possibility of having your postcode leaked may be, a manipulation that could affect your personality is a whole new level of scary.

At people.io, when we say your data is safe with us, we really mean it. We value your trust and we don’t want you to hand anything over for free.

Register for free on people.io and see how you can interact with brands in a whole new way.

Written by Gabriela Grzywacz, people.io

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