Augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR)—immersive technologies that enable users to experience digitally rendered content in both physical and virtual space—have the potential to transform the way individuals work, learn, and interact. By mitigating barriers imposed by physical distance, they can bolster economic opportunity by allowing employees to collaborate from anywhere in the world, make critical services such as healthcare and education more accessible, and create new channels for social connections. Further, their ability to manipulate elements of partially or fully virtual spaces allow them to more easily accommodate a diverse set of user needs, from accessibility features to privacy preferences.
In short, immersive technologies have the potential to make both digital and non-digital services and spaces more inclusive and equitable. However, there are important challenges that industry leaders and policymakers will need to consider to maximize the availability of immersive technologies across a wide range of demographics and to mitigate potential unintended consequences. In particular, they should consider:
- Privacy, health, and safety risks that could adversely affect AR/VR users and non-users.
- Financial, physical, technical, and societal barriers different user groups face to adopting or using AR/VR devices and applications.
- Bias and discrimination risks in critical areas such as employment, education, and government services.
Attention to these considerations will benefit many users by reducing the potential for malicious use of the technology or other unintended consequences that could impede progress in AR/VR adoption. Indeed, employers, educators, and government agencies will expect solutions to many of these challenges before they widely adopt AR/VR technologies.
To address these challenges, those designing and implementing the technology will need to understand the perspectives and lived experiences of a diverse array of individuals. In particular, if they hope to ensure AR/VR advances inclusiveness and equity, they should pay attention to voices from vulnerable, marginalized, or otherwise underserved individuals and communities sometimes underrepresented in the past in discussions around both policy and product development. This includes—but is by no means limited to—communities of color, people with disabilities, the LGBTQ community, abuse survivors, people who are physically or socially isolated, children, older adults, low-income individuals, and other groups that already face heightened risks of harm and exclusion in the “real world.”
There are already notable efforts underway in both industry and policy to consider possible mitigation approaches and proactively develop and implement AR/VR solutions that reflect the needs of a broad range of users. This report highlights some of the top considerations that developers, policymakers, and implementing organizations should include in these efforts. Drawing from interviews with stakeholders with both expertise in and lived experiences of some of these challenges, it explores the concerns that of top importance to equity and inclusion advocates when it comes to AR/VR technologies. It then discusses the implications of these risks and challenges for AR/VR innovation and adoption across sectors.
This report is the second in a three-part series exploring the issues of equity and inclusion in AR/VR.
Risks and Challenges for Vulnerable Users in AR/VR
Individuals and organizations across sectors are just beginning to discover the potential of AR/VR for entertainment, productivity, education, and communication. This user base is continually expanding: One estimate predicts that about 18 percent of the U.S. population will use VR and 28 percent will use AR at least once per month in 2021. However, there are still challenges that may discourage or preclude a significant number of users and broader communities—largely already marginalized and underserved individuals—from accessing and fully utilizing these technologies. These include heightened privacy, health, and safety concerns; barriers to access to and inclusion within immersive experiences; and the potential to compound rather than mitigate bias and discrimination in both virtual and physical spaces. Individuals and communities that face heightened risks to personal safety and autonomy in daily life because of factors such as age, race, gender, sexuality, disability, or other aspects of their identity will be particularly sensitive to these concerns. For example, minority communities may be more likely to face bias, discrimination, and harassment due to factors such as their race or religion; thus, they may be more vulnerable to harms from violations of their privacy that reveal sensitive or potentially identifying information that they did not choose to disclose.
Anticipating these barriers will allow developers and organizations to build and implement more effective AR/VR solutions and prevent negative impacts or drawbacks that could have been relatively easily avoided. Because the technologies are still relatively new, developers can learn from the pitfalls of digital communications technologies that came before them, and produce products with user safety, accessibility, and other considerations in mind.
Table 1: Key Considerations, Risks, and Challenges AR/VR Technologies Present for Vulnerable and Marginalized Communities
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