Internet of Me
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Internet of Me

Is it time for a virtual reality check when it comes to our data?

Virtual reality promises mind-blowing experiences and opportunities for amazing innovation – but what happens to the personal data that drives it all and makes it ‘real’?

We’re over half way through 2016 which, according to just about everybody, is “the year of virtual reality”. The number of caveats has crept up as launch dates slip, but whether it’s this year, next year or the one after, we can be sure that VR is going to be big business.

How big is up for debate. Digi-Capital says $30billion by 2020. Goldman Sachs forecasts revenues of $80billion within the next ten years. SuperData Research predicts sales of hardware and software to hit $2.8billion this year — which is DOWN from a forecast it made in March. Deloitte reckon 2016 will be VR’s first billion dollar year — $700million in hardware sales and the rest coming from software. Whoever calls it right on the numbers, it doesn’t really matter. VR’s moment is here.

With Google’s cheap-as-chips Cardboard, through to Samsung’s GearVR and on up to the market-leading Oculus Rift, it’s possible to step into VR irrespective of how deep your pockets are. Offerings from Playstation and Xbox One will add to a growing field that broadly breaks down into devices that are powered by a smartphone or by a dedicated headset.

Without doubt, we are going to see new tech that will be on a scale from amazing to mind-blowing. As well as the whizz-bang experiential dimension, VR offers us a whole new way of doing things. It is an alternative user interface limited only by the imagination of developers. And whatever we do in our virtual worlds, our data will play a vital part in making it real. Here is where we might find an elephant in our virtual room — and one that is very much of the real world variety.

So much to play for

Gaming is obviously where there’s the biggest VR buzz and the highest anticipated revenue — $300million according to Deloitte. It will drive uptake and grab headlines, but VR has a lot more to offer and will touch our lives in many different ways.

In the social sphere, AltspaceVR offers a virtual environment to meet people, host events, play games, explore and even make VR calls — with Slack integration — although for now the graphics tend a little towards Minecraft. Similarly, vTime is the “the first VR sociable network that allows anyone, anywhere to socialise with friends and family in virtual reality”. It runs on smartphones fitted into headsets or more sophisticated kit such as the Oculus Rift.

Then there is the way we buy things, from shoes to homes. Among its suite of hardware, applications and platforms for the VR industry, Sixense offers vRetail, which can create a virtual shop or allow consumers to try out ‘products’ at home. Matterport, which has raised over $61million in funding, creates 3D representations of real places, specialising in applications for real estate, tourism and retail. It is adding virtual reality to its offer so a user could, for example, look round a property without setting foot inside it. Engineers and emergency workers can explore hostile environments in safety, such as going inside a nuclear reactor. In education, VR will offer new ways to see, learn and understand.

But perhaps one of the most exciting areas of VR innovation is healthcare. Virtual Reality Therapy (VRT) is a growing area of psychotherapy where immersive digital environments are used to treat anxiety disorders and phobias. Two UK psychologists have set up Virtual Exposure Therapy to do just that, making it into the BBC’s New Year report into how 2016 was VR’s ‘big year’. In the US, the Psious platform does something very similar, allowing patients to confront fears and problems under clinical control and supervision. Doctors and medical students can dive into the body to explore anatomy and practice surgical procedures without making an incision with platforms such as zSpace. There are any number of medical and wellbeing applications. Who knows, one day we might not have to drag ourselves from our sickbed to see a doctor.

Privacy is a real thing

Progress might not be all plain sailing, though. As well as the bountiful picture the Goldman Sachs VR report places at the centre of its forecast, its analysts offer two alternative scenarios for revenue growth. The more optimistic one has “accelerated uptake” pushing revenue to $182billion, but this could be a comparatively meagre $23billion if there is “delayed uptake” with privacy among the technological issues that might cause difficulties. Privacy is an issue facing any company using our personal data, and it is here that we might encounter that elephant. The need to get the privacy piece right will be vital across all VR applications, but the pressure will be greatest in the most sensitive areas such as patient health information.

Back in April, the terms of Oculus Rift’s privacy policy came under heavy scrutiny over fears user data could be shared with parent company Facebook and other firms that it owns. Much of the concern was over location data from IP addresses and, potentially, GPS data from smartphones — Oculus and Samsung have collaborated on the Gear VR headset. Then there is usage data detailing the position of the headset and other information about the user’s actions and behaviour. Facebook responded by insisting its primary motives were about improving experience and service, but critics say the door has been left open to pass personal data on to third parties. And that means advertisers.

As it is, almost everything we do online is monitored and tracked unless we take steps to shield ourselves. In a virtual world we will be able to express ourselves in so many more ways. We won’t simply be clicking, liking, scrolling and swiping. The range of gestures will match those we use all the time in real streets, real shops and in our real homes. What we look at, where we go, what we touch, the things that catch our attention. The potential to gather even greater quantities of detailed behavioural data will continue to grow. The opportunity will exist to slap a targeted advert on anything, from the Taj Mahal to the summit of Mount Everest. Or even your living room wall. If the ‘free’ internet is actually one in which we are the product, virtual reality offers unlimited grazing pastures on which to fatten up consumers.

None of this is to say that the impending explosion in virtual and augmented reality is not cause for real excitement and wonder. What’s already on offer and the glimpses of the future offered by the likes of Magic Leap are enough to make it almost irresistible to cast aside such concerns. There is, though, a feeling that as we grow increasingly aware of both the value of our personal data and the way it is exploited by others some might pause before diving headlong into a virtual world. Similar issues exist with the explosion of connected devices in the Internet of Things. A certain amount of data exchange is necessary for services to operate and evolve. How much is necessary is where the arguments over privacy, fairness and transparency will rage.

It’s clear there are not many things we already do online that can’t be done in a virtual environment. It might be that VR — or aspects of it — become our preferred interface for everything from social media to online shopping. Could this immersive experience lull us into forgetting the we might actually be staring down a pipe — albeit a beautifully-rendered, hyper-real one — along which who knows what data might be channelled to who knows where?

With virtual reality still in its infancy, the technology’s pioneers have a real opportunity to establish trust with their users in a way that would differentiate them in a growing market. To ignore issues such as privacy could create uptake barriers as serious as any technological shortcomings.

It is easier to understand the consequences of our actions and interactions in the real, physical world. We take for granted that our privacy is a right that should be respected and protected. As users, consumers — as human beings, — we should expect to enjoy those same fundamental rights whether we are going about our lives in a virtual world or the real one.

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Simon Carroll

Simon Carroll

Editor of Internet of Me, a forum exploring the issues surrounding personal data. Journalist and writer for businesses and brands.