Public Policy for the Metaverse: Key Takeaways from the 2021 AR/VR Policy Conference

Ellysse Dick November 15, 2021
November 15, 2021
AR/VR technologies have transformative potential in everything from entertainment and communication to workforce development and education. But they also raise unique considerations on issues that policymakers are grappling with in relation to other technologies, such as privacy, safety, security, and equity.
Public Policy for the Metaverse: Key Takeaways from the 2021 AR/VR Policy Conference

AR/VR Solutions Have Wide-Ranging Potential

Privacy and Data Governance Should be a Priority

An Immersive Future Raises Unique Safety and Security Considerations

Accessibility and Inclusion are Foundational to Successful Innovation

Looking Ahead: Recommendations for Building an Immersive Future

Conclusion

Augmented and virtual reality technologies (AR/VR), also known as extended reality (XR)—immersive technologies that enable users to experience digitally rendered content in both physical and virtual spaces—have the potential to transform the ways in which people communicate, work, and learn. No longer just for niche enthusiasts or high-tech industries, these technologies are already being used across sectors to overcome physical space barriers and enhance how individuals can interact with the world around them.

As AR/VR technologies proliferate across homes, workplaces, classrooms, and other aspects of everyday life, they raise unique considerations for policymakers. To bring these considerations to the forefront of policy debates, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation partnered with the XR Association to host a half-day Augmented and Virtual Reality Policy Conference on October 21, 2021. The conference brought together 21 speakers from across sectors and industries to discuss key considerations and potential recommendations for policymakers as we move toward a more immersive future.

Awareness and interest in the power and potential of AR/VR are certainly growing among policymakers. For example, the 2021 U.S. Innovation and Competition Act identifies “immersive technology” as one of 10 key technology focus areas. The VR TECHS Act, introduced in 2019, proposed creating a “Federal Advisory Committee on the Usability of Reality Technologies Within the Federal Government.” And the Congressional Caucus on Virtual, Augmented, and Mixed Realities was formed in 2017 to enable members “to educate [their] colleagues and others to ensure Congress is doing all it can to encourage—rather than hinder—these enterprising fields.” However, AR/VR technologies and their applications are rarely considered in broader discussions of key policy issues, including privacy, security, online safety, and the future of education and work.

Through a series of expert talks and panels, speakers at the AR/VR Policy Conference provided a glimpse at what a policy agenda for an immersive future might look like. This post reviews some of the key takeaways from these discussions.

A full recording of the event is available on the conference website at www.arvrpolicy.org.

AR/VR Solutions Have Wide-Ranging Potential

Across industries and areas of expertise, speakers agreed the potential of immersive technologies extends well beyond gaming and entertainment. AR/VR has the potential to enhance businesses as well as public services and expand economic and social opportunities for individuals.

“We’re at an exciting point in time where we can now more fully understand the exceptional uses and applications of augmented, mixed, and virtual reality.” – Elizabeth Hyman, President and CEO, XR Association

One of the most promising areas for AR/VR solutions is training and education. For example, David Vasko, Director of Advanced Technology at Rockwell Automation, illustrated how immersive technologies can allow existing employees as well as college students to gain experience in digital replicas of factories and reduce the need for travel or relocation. Jeremy Bailenson, Founding Director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), similarly named training as the “home run” use case that could accelerate adoption of AR/VR. As an example, his company Strivr provided Walmart with immersive training solutions that resulted in 30 percent higher employee satisfaction and up to 15 percent higher knowledge retention rate. These benefits extend to younger learners as well: both Raul Carvajal, Director of Production and XR for Change at Games for Change, and Michael Preston, CEO of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, noted that AR/VR experiences can offer enriching and engaging experiences for kids both individually and in classroom settings.

“Work is far more remote, far more hybrid than it has ever been. AR and [VR] create an immersive experience where most people still feel like they are with their colleagues.” – Chike Aguh, Chief Innovation Officer, U.S. Department of Labor

Another key application for AR/VR is communication and collaboration. Jeremy Bailenson noted that the Stanford VHIL has done research on this subject, including the unique ability of VR to translate non-verbal communications more realistically than two-dimensional videoconferencing. And Scott Evans, Vice President for Mixed Reality at Microsoft, agreed that video-based platforms “will evolve into much more immersive and 3D collaborative environments that allow us to connect across physical barriers and spatial barriers in ways that we haven’t had in the past.”

Immersive solutions can also expand opportunities and create new avenues for inclusion. For example, “tools powered by [AR/VR] can help people with disabilities succeed by experiencing environments, learning new skills, and participating in new ways in the workplace,” explained Bill Curtis-Davidson, co-director of the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology. And while “VR is not a magic tool where you put on the medium and suddenly racism, sexism, [and] ageism goes away,” noted Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford VHIL, the technology can “[give] you a very intense experience where you can be in a situation you wouldn’t be in otherwise.”

Privacy and Data Governance Should be a Priority

To reach the full potential of these technologies, many speakers argued, there are unique questions about privacy that policymakers and the companies building AR/VR technologies will have to address. AR/VR devices require a large amount of information about individuals and their surroundings in order to deliver immersive, engaging experiences. As Joan O’Hara, Vice President for Public Policy at the XR Association noted, “we’re already dealing with these challenges in two dimensions, but this ups the ante a bit.”

“There’s a massive responsibility to keep these technologies safe and ensure that the public has visibility over how their data is used and managed.” – Raul Carvajal, Director of Production and XR for Change, Games for Change

Data stewardship was the foremost concern for many speakers. As experts deeply familiar with these technologies, they recognized that the amount of information they gather—and what can be inferred from that data—requires strong data protection and privacy measures. For example, users should clearly understand how biometric data, such as motion tracking or eye tracking, is used, and companies gathering that data should ensure they have measures in place to protect that information from unauthorized third parties.

Many speakers argued that the unique privacy considerations that these technologies present make a case for a comprehensive national privacy law that puts necessary guardrails in place and provides a foundation for companies developing these and other new technologies to build from. “It would make sense for a privacy law to be tech-agnostic so that it can be impactful in the future,” noted Jeremy Greenberg, Policy Counsel at the Future of Privacy Forum. In her remarks, Reality Caucus Co-Chair Representative Suzan DelBene also raised concerns that others will fill in regulatory gaps if the U.S. does not move quickly on privacy legislation. “We won’t be able to shape standards abroad,” she warned, “and we risk others driving global policy.”

An Immersive Future Raises Unique Safety and Security Considerations

In addition to mitigating potential privacy harms, speakers highlighted the need to consider other safety and security implications of AR/VR devices and applications. Several raised concerns about the potential for both physical and emotional harms when the physical world can be altered or replaced entirely by digitally rendered content. “There becomes this possibility that your reality can be manipulated,” said Jessica Outlaw, Research Director at the Extended Mind. On the one hand, this creates physical safety concerns: imagine, for example, that an AR application shows it is safe to cross the street by obscuring the user’s view of oncoming traffic. On the other hand, it also presents less tangible safety concerns by creating new channels for harassment or defamation. And, as Jeremy Greenberg of the Future of Privacy Forum noted, there are also valid concerns around mental health and addiction as physical and virtual reality overlap but never fully converge.

All of these concerns are particularly relevant when it comes to child safety. Many speakers cautioned that, as AR/VR technologies become more present in homes, classrooms, and other aspects of everyday life for all ages, it will be important to establish guardrails that protect children’s physical and emotional wellbeing across these experiences. Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford VHIL also raised this concern, noting that child safety remains a notable knowledge gap in our understanding of the impacts of immersive technologies.

“Often the necessary protections for kids are applied only to products designed for kids, rather than products designed for adults that kids happen to adopt.” – Michael Preston, Executive Director, Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop

In addition to personal security, Ash M. Richter, Senior Technology Architect at In-Q-Tel, argued that AR/VR technologies could also have implications for national security. “What we’re talking about is a new mechanism for recording our history as a species,” she argued, and “if we’re not there at the conversations for how to even ensure the record stays intact … then we’re ceding a very big security component on top of all of the economic pieces attached to this.” It is not difficult to imagine how adversarial actors could take advantage of the reality-altering capabilities of these technologies if necessary security protections are not in place. Similar concerns arise from capabilities such as deepfakes, which can fabricate recorded images or video—but AR/VR can present falsified realities in real-time. For example, digital overlays could be altered to make a person appear somewhere they are not or even to distort the information that military personnel or officials receive on the ground during a crisis.

Accessibility and Inclusion are Foundational to Successful Innovation

As conversations unfolded around the power and potential of these technologies, ensuring equitable access and inclusive design from the start was a central theme. Many speakers saw this as an opportunity to build technologies that benefit as many people as possible from the outset—rather than scrambling to expand access or build in accessibility features after the fact. “These technologies are going to be everywhere … but we cannot leave people behind in terms of being educated and participating in society,” argued Bill Curtis-Davidson of the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology.

Speakers from the public sector, industry, and civil society largely agreed that if accessibility and inclusive design are seen as an imperative at this early stage, this will ultimately lead to more widespread adoption and opportunities to drive innovation. For example, Chike Aguh of the U.S. Department of Labor highlighted the importance of equity, accessibility, and inclusion in designing AR/VR solutions that can expand economic opportunity by making workplaces more accessible to those who might face mobility constraints.

This means designing both for and with people with diverse needs, including people with disabilities, different demographic groups (such as age, race, and gender), and people from different cultural or socioeconomic backgrounds. “It’s important to think about who is in the room when the content and the tools are being designed,” said Chike Aguh, arguing that “it is important to look at what—and who—do your design teams look like?” Indeed, as Bill Curtis-Davidson noted, people using technologies that were not designed for them—such as people with disabilities—have developed innovative “life-hacking” skills that could inform inclusive product design.

“This is such a new technology, we’ve got to make sure that we’re making this available to everyone, we’re considering people who have different abilities, different price points, all of these things.” – Erika Peace, Senior Industry Product Manager for Government, Unity Technologies

In addition to devices that are physically useable for a diverse set of individuals, many speakers highlighted the importance of ensuring equitable access, particularly for key use cases such as work and education. “Many organizations that would be able to take advantage of [AR/VR] simply don’t know how they would viably fund some of the hardware implementation, let alone the development of any custom software,” noted Raul Carvajal of Games for Change. Many speakers highlighted the importance of engaging with stakeholder communities to achieve more equitable access—for example, as Michael Preston of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center proposed, partnering with schools to directly reach diverse students.

Noble Ackerson, President of the CyberXR Initiative, acknowledged that there will be some disparities in access even with the best efforts to avoid them. But just as cell phones went from costly (and somewhat cumbersome) luxury items to a utility that billions around the world rely on, he believes that AR/VR devices will reach a point where they could benefit a significant portion of the population if policies and initiatives are in place to drive equitable adoption.

Looking Ahead: Recommendations for Building an Immersive Future

AR/VR technologies clearly present enormous potential; and they raise unique considerations. How, then, should policymakers proceed to build an immersive future that positively impacts people’s lives? As Stephen Yadzinski, Senior Innovation Officer at Jobs for the Future argued, “we have to hurry up on these issues a little bit to make sure we don’t fall behind in terms of what the right solution might be.” Over the course of the event, speakers identified several actions that policymakers and other stakeholders can take to address this urgency.

First, it is clear that this conversation should be a collaborative effort among policymakers, industry leaders, civil society, and current and potential users across diverse communities. “At times with emerging technologies, companies feel like they have to make it up on their own,” observed Chike Aguh of the Department of Labor.  He added, “I think that to the extent that we can bring all parties together and create some rules of the road … you’ll increase adoption and remove some of the pitfalls that we’ve seen with prior emerging technologies.” As the technology continues to evolve, established guidelines and best practices will allow companies to continue to innovate with these considerations in mind. For example, Susan Persky, Director of the Immersive Simulation Program at the National Institutes of Health’s Human Genome Research Institute, emphasized the importance of clear systems for evaluating a wide range of AR/VR applications, particularly health and medical solutions. In addition, as Erika Peace of Unity Technologies noted, policymakers and implementing organizations should work with developers to determine how best to integrate these technologies into existing IT systems. This will accelerate adoption in key areas, including government operations and public services, workplace training and collaboration, and education.

As AR/VR innovation expands to new use cases and user bases, developers and implementers—whether they be private companies, public sector organizations, or individuals—will need a strong knowledge base to build and utilize these tools safely and effectively. There is still a notable lack of research or evidence base in many of the areas discussed above. For example, there is insufficient research to understand how children might experience AR/VR differently from adults, how these technologies might impact their mental health or cognitive development, and how to best integrate these solutions into established pedagogical approaches to optimize learning outcomes. In addition, many speakers noted that the evidence base for return on investment (ROI) from AR/VR solutions is lacking, particularly outside of well-established uses such as in advanced manufacturing or training. “[If] you show there is an ROI, monetarily, for some of these technologies, that will help push this forward,” noted Diane Hickey, SBIR/STTR Program Director at the National Science Foundation.

“As new technologies enter the marketplace, one challenge is informing and educating members of Congress about these cutting-edge technology developments, as well as the benefits—and concerns—that come with them.” – Representative Suzan DelBene, Co-Chair, Congressional Caucus on Virtual, Augmented, and Mixed Realities

Because these technologies are still relatively unknown to many and new to most, technological innovation should be accompanied by efforts to educate consumers and policymakers, upskill workers who could benefit from these technologies, and prepare rising generations for success in a world where virtual and physical reality play equally important roles in their daily lives. Scott Evans of Microsoft also observed that the new technology itself is not necessary the challenge—it’s “how to re-train people how to change operations, how to change procedures and a way of working that sometimes has been ingrained for many decades.” Thus, guidance for change management within companies and institutions will be just as important as building out a skilled workforce that can utilize AR/VR solutions.

All of this should be part of a larger effort to ensure U.S. competitiveness in this immersive future. AR/VR “has a growing and important place in the minds of legislators when it comes to innovation and global competitiveness,” observed Elizabeth Hyman of the XR Association. Although the United States is home to many leading innovators in this space, ongoing leadership in the global AR/VR ecosystem is not guaranteed. Indeed, “the U.S. has, to a certain extent, ceded a lot of the power, both in terms of the development of these industries as well as the content creation therein,” argued Ash Richter of In-Q-Tel. She pointed to mass digitization in the Asia-Pacific region and policy developments in Europe as two areas where the U.S. is falling behind. Policymakers should work with industry to establish policies and invest in initiatives that encourage innovation and promote widespread adoption of AR/VR to solidify U.S. leadership in a more immersive future.

Conclusion

AR/VR technologies are proliferating in every aspect of everyday life, from entertainment and communication to workforce development and education. These technologies have transformative potential—but they also raise unique considerations in key areas such as privacy, safety, security, and equity that policymakers are already grappling with in relation to existing technologies. The conversations at the AR/VR Policy Conference brought many of these considerations to light and demonstrated the importance of including these technologies in ongoing policy debates about how to regulate the technologies that shape our lives.

Further Resources from Conference Speakers:

Noble Ackerson on Medium: https://medium.com/@nobleackerson

Joseph Jerome and Jeremy Greenberg, “Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality: Privacy and Autonomy Considerations in Emerging, Immersive Digital Worlds,” https://fpf.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/FPF-ARVR-Report-4.16.21-Digital.pdf

Archit Kaushik, “XR for Social Impact: A Landscape Review,” https://www.gamesforchange.org/refresh2018/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/G4C_XR4C_2020_white_paper_Final.pdf

Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology and XR Association, “What Leaders Need to Know: Inclusive, Immersive Workplace Technologies,” https://www.peatworks.org/futureofwork/xr/inclusivexrbrief/

Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology, “Inclusive XR in the Workplace: How Accessible Immersive Technologies Can Help Employers Upskill and Enable an Increasingly Diverse Workforce,” https://www.peatworks.org/futureofwork/xr/inclusiveworkplacexr

Research from The Extended Mind: https://www.extendedmind.io/

KEY TAKEAWAYS

AR/VR has the potential to enhance businesses as well as public services and expand economic and social opportunities for individuals, with applications in education and training, communication and collaboration, among others.
Data stewardship is a key policy concern, since AR/VR devices require a large amount of information about individuals and their surroundings in order to deliver immersive, engaging experiences.
As AR/VR becomes common in homes and classrooms, it will be important to protect children’s physical and emotional wellbeing. Safety and security implications also may include bad actors taking advantage of AR/VR’s reality-altering capabilities.
Accessibility and inclusion are foundational: Building technologies that benefit as many people as possible from the outset—instead of compensating after the fact—will lead to more widespread adoption and opportunities to drive innovation.
Looking ahead, the 2021 AR/VR Policy Conference made clear that crafting public policy for the metaverse should be a collaborative effort among policymakers, industry leaders, civil society, and current and potential users across diverse communities.