Do you feel safe in the metaverse? Chances are, if you’ve even thought about XR safety, it’s because you’ve already had a negative experience in an immersive environment. Fortunately, there’s an organization out there working on protecting and improving XR safety – from before you buy the headset to after you’ve taken it off. It’s called XRSI.
The XR Safety Initiative (XRSI) “promotes privacy, security, and ethics in the immersive environments” and “help(s) build safe and inclusive experiences so that XR stakeholders are able to make informed decisions.” The organization does this through community events as well as through the publication of research and standards.
Between research findings, best-practice documents, standards, and frameworks, XRSI currently has 10 extant publications available for free download. XRSI also maintains an extensive taxonomy of XR terminology and a blog including internal posts and coverage by outside organizations.
Outside of these publications, XRSI operates five distinct programs, the Cyber-XR Coalition, Ready Hacker One, The Child Safety Initiative, Medical XRSI, and XR Data Classification. Their annual XR Safety Week (XRSW) took place earlier this month, taking place before the holiday season and ending on International Human Rights Day.
Highlights From XR Safety Week
“Here we are, post Meta announcement, post other announcements, and it’s clear that the metaverse is real,” XRSI founder and CEO Kavya Pearlman said in the opening event of XRSW. “This is the second annual XR Safety Week, and I’m honored to continue this campaign of awareness.”
XR Safety Week lasted five days with each day dedicated to the topics of immersive storytelling, child safety, diversity and inclusion, medical XR, and privacy and safety. But, whatever software is used and however it is used, common themes connected most conversations, for example, the capacity of XR devices to access personal data.
“These technologies require data collection. We’re entering the era of constant reality capture,” said Pearlman. “In the internet, we fought for privacy – in the metaverse, we fight for agency.”
Immersive Story Telling
XR Safety Week took place entirely in AltspaceVR, and games and gaming were another uniting conversation topic. While some of the opportunities and obstacles discussed in the talks were anything but a game, much of XR technology has its roots in gaming and that is how many people are introduced to the space.
“Games have permeated our culture in so many ways,” Berkman Klein Center affiliate Micaela Mantegna said in the “It’s (Not) Just a Game!” day-one talk. “Even now, we’re communicating in this very game-like environment.”
The conversation touched on increasing diversity in game development, including game developers themselves, and the ability to customize avatars. However, it did circle back to the persistent problem of data collection.
“When you combine virtual worlds with tracking devices, you’re creating something very powerful,” said Mantegna. “When you hear ‘smart’… you need to think, ‘smart for whom?’… Who is the master of this technology?”
Powers in the metaverse come with opportunities for error, and that doesn’t just go for hardware. In many ways, interactions in the metaverse are different from our personal interactions. In some ways, they should be similar.
In a talk titled “Safeguarding Your Child’s Mental Health Within the Metaverse With the Metaverse Intelligence Quotient,” Shea Richburg, co-founder of the Future Wise Group presented “setpoints” for individual happiness and satisfaction in the metaverse.
“It’s important, not just for kids, but for all of us to maintain mental health in the metaverse as in the real world, and stay connected in the metaverse as in the real world,” said Richburg. “There has to be a balance between these two things.”
Richburg introduced “The Metaverse Intelligence Quotient” (MIQ) accounting for empathy, respect, inclusiveness, and awareness – including self-awareness, awareness of others, and awareness of the environment.
“If a child doesn’t understand who they are in the metaverse, there can be serious consequences,” said Richburg. “Children must exhibit the same amount of respect in the metaverse as they would in the real world. We don’t want children to step into the metaverse and treat it like a mask.”
While the talk focused on children and games, Richburg also explained that the MIQ has potential in social and educational experiences too, as well as in industry. These ageless considerations were also a theme in “Safety in XRPT: Extended Reality Play Therapy” presented by Dr. Jessica Stone.
“As adults we play, kids, babies, everyone… we are able to interact with people in playful ways beyond what we traditionally think,” said Stone, who is both excited and cautious about bringing XR into her practice. “We must take into consideration how this affects our clients and how it affects the therapeutic process.”
Diversity and Inclusion
Diversity and inclusion are sticking points in the metaverse as in the physical world. They can be difficult to get right within the spirit of competition in tech, Australian eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman-Grant said in “Game On: The Role of Safety in the Metaverse.”
“The tech sector is diverse and the tech sector is never going to dictate or prescribe anything that is going to work in any and all cases,” said Inman-Grant. “Safety really is an area where we really shouldn’t be competing unless it’s a race to the top, so we really should be sharing these best practices.”
Inman-Grant’s proposal: “Safety by design is about reengineering the infrastructure that we have now but it’s also about driving innovation going forward… We need to think about emerging capabilities and engineering out harm where we can. It’s about making safety a forethought rather than an afterthought.”
Collaboration between platforms was also a theme in a panel discussion, “Avatars, Virtual Harassment, and XR Safety Challenges in Higher Education.”
“From an industry perspective, one of the things we need to be doing is talking to folks and understanding how they think about these things,” said Microsoft’s Developer Relations Advocacy Lead, Thomas Lewis. “The more we think about how these platforms connect together, the more we can think about where we need representation.”
However, even when platforms get diversity and inclusion right, there’s no guarantee that users will.
“The research and everything shows that the same populations that are often targeted in real life… tend to basically face the same if not more harassment in VR,” said futurist Maya Georgieva. “It never just happens in a game, you carry it with you. The VR experience really begins when you take off the headset because you just created a memory.”
The medical XR talks did touch on topics like data collection and XR safety but were overwhelmingly positive. In her talk, “The Promise, Opportunities, and Risk of Medical XR,” Lucidify founder and CEO, Divya Chander, said that XR helps to solve cost and accessibility issues within medical education.
“Medical education can now be imparted without needing to be supported by a large medical school setting,” said Chander. Though, like Stone expressed on day two, Chander does have some reservations. “XR is going to create increased opportunity for health and wellness. It is also going to introduce new forms of data collection.”
Medical Realities Chief Medical Officer, Shafi Ahmed affirmed these ideas in his talk “Healthcare Simulation and Training.”
“For me, AR, VR, and MR are just natural extensions of learning,” said Ahmed. “It hasn’t replaced face-to-face, but it adds value, it augments, it supports.”
Privacy and Safety
XR isn’t used in a vacuum but together with other emerging technologies that add value and complexity to XR safety. This was particularly important in the panel discussion “Gremlins and Guardrails: What’s Next for the Metaverse.”
“The metaverse isn’t just AR/XR,” said FutureGrasp founder and CEO Thomas A. Campbell “Blockchain, NFTs, DAOs… it’s a strange new world of finance and education and gaming.”
While these other areas bring their own complications, they can also contribute to the solutions to problems with XR safety and the metaverse generally.
“I think business and commerce has a huge role in this, and then the private sector more generally,” said The Molybdenum founder and president, Damien Weldon. “I think it’s important that the space is looked at in its totality as this nexus of all of these technologies.”
That’s not the only place where our thinking needs to be nuanced to address XR safety.
“I’m asked sometimes how we solve these problems and I don’t think solving is what we do, I think improving is what we do,” said The Cantellus Group founder and CEO Karen E. Silverman. “There’s not one way to do it, there’s not one best way to do it.”
A panel discussion, “Building Human Rights Into Metaverse” included voices with more direct plans of action for XR safety.
“Start with the hardware,” said Brittan Heller, International Human Rights expert and Council at Foley Hoag LLP. “All of the mismatches that we see between current laws and expectations come from the fact that people don’t understand what this technology is and why it’s different from social media.”
XR ethicist and Voices of VR host, Kent Bye, expressed concern with a hardware-first or hardware-only solution, saying, “These ethical issues cannot be solved by sheer technological determinism. There are always going to be issues where you need to have the law.”
There was so much more at XR Safety Week and videos of all sessions are available on the XRSI YouTube page. There was also one monumental piece of news at XR Safety Week: a new public initiative called Metaverse Reality Check. Anyone can sign up to support, contribute, or just follow along.