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Citing 15 AR/VR Safety Threats, New Report Recommends Policy Solutions to Protect Users Without Stifling Innovation

WASHINGTON—Augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) comes with a new set of safety concerns that require careful attention from policymakers, according to a new report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), the leading think tank for science and technology policy.

The report cites 15 potential threats posed by AR/VR technologies—from distracted driving with heads-up displays in car windshields to new forms of cyberbullying and virtual harassment in immersive games. To address these concerns without stifling innovation in the burgeoning metaverse, ITIF recommends a series of measures, including codifying certain digital crimes, providing specialized training and best practices to law enforcement, and supporting federal research initiatives.

“As AR/VR tech continues to grow in popularity, we need to prioritize users’ safety and make sure that companies promptly address any mistakes,” said ITIF Policy Analyst Juan Londoño, who authored the report. “Policymakers will have a role in this process, especially in ensuring that what’s illegal in the physical world is also illegal in the virtual one.”

The new report is the first installment in a series assessing safety issues for AR/VR users in different age groups. Starting with adults, the threats ITIF cites include physical harms, such as eye strain, motion sickness, and the consequences of distracted driving; mental harms, such as sexual violence via haptics, cyberbullying, and harmful content; and financial harms stemming from gambling, identity theft, and ransomware.

To ensure a safe experience for AR/VR users, the report makes the following policy recommendations:

  • Policymakers should consider the potential negative impact of proposed laws and regulation on social media, biometrics, and content moderation on AR/VR.
  • Congress should enact federal legislation across all 50 states that criminalizes such harmful actions as cyberbullying, distributing revenge porn, and swatting.
  • The Department of Justice should create guidelines for local and state police departments that raise awareness of these cybercrimes and provide tools for police officers to respond accordingly.
  • The Department of Labor should fund research grants on eye strain and motion sickness in AR/VR to address worker safety issues.
  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) should update its distracted driving guidance to explicitly address issues specific to AR heads-up displays (HUDs) in vehicles.
  • The National Institutes of Health should support research on potential psychological harms derived from the continuous use of AR/VR devices.

Along with an overview of current immersive technologies, the report examines the similarities and differences between the risks of using AR/VR devices and the risks of using other technologies, including smartphones, 2D social media, and the Internet of Things.

“A lot of the user safety issues in AR/VR are similar to ones in smartphones and videogames, but the immersion of AR/VR can increase both the magnitude and complexity of these risks,” said Londoño. “For example, spyware on an AR device that’s used all day could reveal a lot more of a person’s sensitive information than a compromised smartphone.”

ITIF warns that policymakers and regulators should be wary of regulations that could potentially stifle developers’ and platforms’ ability to experiment with immersive technologies. The report emphasizes that addressing concerns regarding user safety will require experimentation with different tools and approaches.

“It’s true that the experimentation process will lead certain companies to take missteps, but this experimentation is a driver of innovation and development in young markets and shouldn’t be blocked by overregulation,” said Londoño. “Instead, the government should be looking at ways that regulation can help spur innovation in the field, such as through federal-level privacy legislation or codifying certain digital crimes.” 

Read the report.

Fifteen Known User Safety Threats and Potential Responses

Type of Threat

Where It Occurs

Potential Solutions

Distracted driving/biking/walking

Most augmented reality devices

Car mode; Focus mode: reduce notifications from non-navigation apps

Motion sickness

Virtual reality devices

Customizable movement and camera settings: camera rotation angle, camera rotation speed, vignette/tunnel vision mode, smooth movement versus teleport movement

Establishment of digital boundaries, such as the “guardian” system

Alert systems for instances when humans or objects trespass virtual boundaries

Pop-ups and notifications before use of apps

Obscured or limited field of view

Most extended reality devices

Cybersecurity investment

Technological literacy campaigns for users

Pop-ups and warnings about sharing sensitive information when live streaming

Privacy and data stewardship standard setting

Federal privacy legislation

Stalking and swatting

Extended reality devices

Geofencing

Robust reporting system

Conscious product design, which is mindful of hazardous areas

Leading users to dangerous/off-limits locations

Augmented reality

Content moderation tools: flagging system, content removal, product throttling

Incitation of violence/vandalism

Multi-user immersive experiences

Content moderation tools: flagging system, content removal, pop-up systems

Health misinformation

Multi-user immersive experiences

User-driven responses: confirming the identity of the other user before using immersive haptics

Sexual violence with immersive haptics

Sex-related extended reality haptic devices

Personal safety tools for users: mute, block, report, and “safe zone” functionality

Establishment of personal boundaries or space bubbles, which prevent other avatars from violating a user’s personal space

Content moderation by platforms or community leaders

Sexual violence in MUIEs

Multi-user immersive experiences

Personal safety tools for users: mute, block, report, and “safe zone” functionality

Decentralized content moderation: community-driven moderation through world/room moderators

Legislation that codifies cyberbullying as a crime

Cyberbullying and virtual harassment

Multi-user immersive experiences

Traditional content moderation tools: pop-ups, automated flagging systems

Decentralized content moderation: community-driven moderation through world/room moderators

Legislation that codifies cyberbullying as a crime

Harmful content

Multi-user immersive experiences

Traditional content moderation tools: pop-ups, automated flagging systems

Decentralized content moderation: community-driven moderation through world/room moderators

Addiction and psychological impact of virtual socialization

Multi-user immersive experiences

User-established screen time restrictions, screen time reports

Pop-ups notifying users of extended use of device/platform

Content moderation tools

Appropriate categorization of content: Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB)  ratings, mature/adult tags in-platform

Gambling

Multi-user immersive experiences, extended reality devices

ID verification: if not possible on-device, through the use of a companion app

In-app resources for those facing gambling addiction

Identity theft, fraud, and ransomware

Multi-user immersive experiences

Two-factor authorization

Restricting player-to-player item transfers

Integration of password managers

Adoption of password-less technology such as Zero-Trust Authentication

Impersonation and reputational damage

Multi-user immersive experiences

Impersonation report systems

Locking photorealistic avatar function for nonverified users

 

 

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The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) is an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan research and educational institute focusing on the intersection of technological innovation and public policy. Recognized by its peers in the think tank community as the global center of excellence for science and technology policy, ITIF’s mission is to formulate and promote policy solutions that accelerate innovation and boost productivity to spur growth, opportunity, and progress.

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