Headlines are currently full of sensationalist stories about the applications of immersive technology: these range from how it could “help the global mental health crisis” all the way through to its deployment to “improve shoe sizing”. But as the hype grows, and the industry transitions to cater to widescale commercial application as well as recreational use, the industry should be aware that the scrutiny of policymakers and regulators will not be far behind.
With what was previously a high-tech novelty starting to permeate into everyday life, the UK Government has this year begun assessing whether the application of pre-existing regulatory frameworks will be adequate, or even feasible, and thus whether new legislation might be required to plug the emerging gaps. One of the first indications of this process beginning was the recent establishment of a new parliamentary inquiry by a House of Commons’ Select Committee, set up to perform precisely this scrutinising function by collecting evidence from academics and industry representatives.
The initial direction of this inquiry, combined with the unique features of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR) and haptics, seem to suggest that there will indeed be a number of urgent policy challenges for the industry to tackle in the coming months and years.
For example, the content that immersive experiences serve – while already subject to some regulatory requirements – is likely to be doubled down on through strict permissions processes for advertising and marketing; restrictions and age classifications; and health and safety requirements. For many, the viral uptake of AR application Pokemon Go in 2016 and the following reports of users falling off cliffs, abandoning their children, getting into shoot outs and causing traffic accidents made tangible the real safety concerns that can arise from immersion to the point of neglecting reality.
In addition, the European Union’s recently implemented General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and its UK manifestation, the Data Protection Act, have stirred up intense political focus upon data privacy. Given immersive technologies’ collection and processing of vast quantities of data on a new scale, the industry can expect to feel the heat of this scrutiny even more than most. Headsets or devices that collect in particular biometric data, location data, and/or data about other people in the near vicinity who are not the actual user, will all have new questions asked about how they intend to mitigate the associated privacy and security concerns.
Finally, the regulatory framework that props up rights as well as responsibilities may be another of the first focal points for policymakers. Specifically, the complex interaction of immersive technology companies to design and manufacture new products has in some cases given rise to questions relating to intellectual property ownership, as well as the assignation of liability in the event of malfunction or harm. Meanwhile, the highly realistic environments that VR strives to create through amalgamating images, texts, brands, products and services has arguably put unprecedented pressure on copyrighting laws. One further example is the current hot topic of protection against online harm, where immersive technology platform operators will need to take care that they are compliant with the emerging rules regarding responsibility for content hosted.
At Inline Policy, we have looked at these particular policy dilemmas in great depth (download the full report here) and found that there is still much to be decided upon, with the outcomes of such decisions critical to the future of the immersive technology industry. This is something that stakeholders are quickly realising, with over 10% now believing that regulation and legal risks might be the biggest obstacle to mass adoption of the technology, up significantly from just 1% thinking so last year. Regulation does not have to be perceived as an obstacle though; if industry can engage with policymakers in a timely and constructive way, there is still plenty of scope for a policy framework to develop that nurtures innovation, rather than restricting it.