Staying virtuous in the world of virtual reality

Reality this year has been pretty tough, so it may come as no surprise that the popularity of virtual reality is on the rise. With Christmas fast approaching you may even find some of this tech under your tree, but what do Australians really need to know about this and other immersive technologies?

You’ve probably heard of ‘virtual reality’, but this is just one type of immersive technology. It’s a wide-ranging term that covers augmented reality, virtual reality, mixed reality and haptic technologies. 

It all sounds very exciting. And this technology provides a range of opportunities – in education, entertainment and for people with disability, among others. However, it also poses safety, privacy and security challenges for individuals, businesses and governments.

“While eSafety has not – as yet – received any reports of mishaps with haptics, or other misuses of these technologies, we anticipate that as they become more widely used these immersive technologies will give rise to a range of online safety issues,” says Julie Inman Grant, Australia’s eSafety Commissioner. 

What could the issues be?

  • Anticipated online safety concerns from immersive technologies include grooming by sexual predators, online child sexual abuse and creation and sharing of child sexual abuse material in virtual environments, as well as cyberbullying of children and cyber abuse of adults, and the hacking and non-consensual sharing of sexual images and videos created for private use in virtual environments.
  • As virtual reality becomes nearly indistinguishable from actual life, new harms may emerge, such as physical or sexual abuse occurring within a virtual environment. Groping, for example, might take place in a virtual environment and be experienced through virtual reality headsets and haptic suits. These hyperrealistic experiences can cause sensations and emotions that are upsetting, especially for children. They also open up the risk of children being influenced or manipulated by others wishing to target and abuse them.
  • The misuse of location and biometric information (physical characteristics such as fingerprints that identify an individual) collected by augmented and virtual technologies may pose security risks such as identity theft, stalking and extortion.

How our work program will address this:

  • Raising awareness about how immersive technologies can facilitate online abuse and options to address any abuse.
  • Supporting victims – eSafety can help with some forms of abuse through immersive technology, including through our investigative techniques and reporting systems.
  • Supporting industry with our Safety by Design initiative, which helps businesses embed safety into products and services. This includes supporting the immersive technology industry to anticipate and address potential risks and misuse before these technologies become more common.

“We know that online harms disproportionately impact at-risk groups and communities and will work to understand and address how immersive technologies impact these groups,” says Ms Inman Grant. 

“In practical advice – when parents and carers are deciding if their child should play an immersive technology game, they should think about whether it’s something they would want their child to experience in real life.

“It’s also important to supervise children when they are online and let them know they can come to you for help if they experience anything that makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe.”

What are the types of immersive technologies?

  • Augmented reality (AR) – this involves adding digital content to an individual's view of the real world in real-time, through your phone or smart glasses. You will likely already find this function on your smartphone. The Google 3D animals feature proved popular with kids during lockdown!
  • Virtual reality (VR) – this is a more immersive experience compared to AR, using a headset and hand-held controller. These are loaded with sensors that track head and hand movements, allowing the user to interact with, and navigate through, different environments. It’s a computer generated artificial digital environment that looks and sounds like a real environment.
  • Mixed reality (MR) – combines elements of both AR and VR. In mixed reality, digital objects and characters blend into the physical environment and interacting with light, sound and space in the same way that real objects and characters would.
  • Haptic technologies – this is where things get (almost) real! These are technologies which engage a user’s sense of touch. Haptic suits, for example, are wearable devices that produce vibrations and provide tactile feedback. When used in combination with AR or VR, haptics enhance the user experience by adding touch to vision and sound.

Together, these form a new universe of “extended reality” with smell and taste sensations soon to be part of the mix.

See eSafety's position statement.

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