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Time for a ‘reality check’: new research into virtual and augmented reality

29 April 2019
Augmented reality Virtual reality new research Privacy Ethics
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The virtual and the physical world are merging. We virtually expand the physical world using Augmented Reality (AR) and create realistic and immersive worlds in Virtual Reality (VR). These technologies are becoming increasingly accessible and offer many opportunities for different social domains. But is society sufficiently prepared for the use of AR and VR? The Rathenau Institute will conduct research into this in the coming months. Because it is high time for a reality check.

The technological development of Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality is going super fast. Tech giants such as Facebook (Oculus), HTC and Valve (Vive), Microsoft (HoloLens) and Sony (Morpheus) are investing billions in AR and VR, making this technology increasingly cheaper. This puts the applications within reach for millions of people. Simple AR apps have become widely accessible through our smartphones and are now immensely popular; for example, the Pokémon Go app broke all download records in 2016 when it was downloaded 50 million times within 19 days.

Is society ready for the deployment of AR and VR?

AR and VR techniques offer many opportunities in the field of (re) creation and for social sectors such as education, healthcare, marketing, and production. However, the use of technology also brings new social issues with it. The question is whether our society is sufficiently prepared for this. In 2014, for example, Google Glass and its face-recognition camera caused a lot of fuss about privacy issues; with the result that the "smart" glasses were banned in several places. The use of the Pokémon Go app led to road deaths in 2016 and brought hordes of players to inappropriate places such as cemeteries, private grounds, and memorial sites such as Auschwitz and Hiroshima Peace Park.

At the moment there is a lot of focus on technical development, and little attention is paid to the social embedding of VR and AR applications. The Rathenau Instituut has therefore started researching the ethical and social issues that the use of these technologies entail.

Too little attention is paid to the ethical and social issues that AR and VR applications entail.

Conflicts between the real and virtual world

Questions in the field of VR are often related to the immersive nature of virtual reality: the feeling that you are physically immersed in a digital world. Specific problems that can result from this are alienation, physical damage, emotional involvement, addiction, and a violation of rights in the virtual world. AR has an opposite perception; the real world is not being replaced by the virtual world, but the virtual world is "conquering" the real world. Specific problems that may result from this are those of privacy, property issues, and manipulation.

We will be issuing two reports: in the fall of 2019 we will present an exploration of the social issues surrounding VR, and in the spring of 2020 we will publish a study of AR. Part of the project team is artist in residence at the Rathenau Institute, Roos Groothuizen. Roos is the first artist in residence at the institute, an appointment that resulted from a collaboration with research platform SETUP. Among other things, she helps to make the insights from this project (and other research from the Rathenau Institute) more tangible.

Want to know more about this research? Please contact Dhoya Snijders or Serf Doesborgh.