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Getting ahead of the risks of extended reality

It started out with gamers immersing themselves in virtual worlds, but now, the promise of a true imagination economy seems imminent.

Extended reality (XR) is breaking beyond the hype to create opportunities across sectors and walks of life. But with the opportunities come profound risks. Having wised up to the privacy and security concerns of today’s technologies, it’s urgent that business leaders commit to new responsible approaches before XR becomes a part of our everyday lives.

The end of a hype cycle

Extended reality includes virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and a growing range of immersive technologies. Within a few years, touch, taste and smell will be incorporated into immersive experiences, helping to change the way we interact with each other and with the world around us.

These advances and the rollout of the superfast 5G networks will unleash enormous investment as a wave of XR business cases finally become technically and financially feasible. Already this year, industry spending on AR and VR is set to overtake consumer spending.

By 2023, industry spending will be triple consumer spending. Further trends are converging, which together signal the end of this first XR hype cycle. For example, the number of patent applications for VR and AR innovations has exploded five times between 2014 and 2016 (the latest available data), while start-up funding for XR grew 237 percent. The scene is set for major transformation.

A world of opportunity

XR is finally coming of age, as illustrated by the sheer breadth of increasingly common uses highlighted in our new report. Remote brain surgery is just one application that is already being tested today.

In March of this year, Ling Zhipei performed China’s first remote, 5G-supported surgery on the human brain, on a patient more than 1,800 miles from his location. XR tools are also gaining ground in mental health therapy, including treatment of trauma, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

XR is also changing the way organizations train people, by providing hands-on experiential learning. The immersive power of VR makes it especially effective at developing behavioral and social skills that are increasingly in demand, and at simulating stressful or hazardous situations.

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BP, for example, helps prepare workers through virtual simulations of offshore-drilling operations, allowing them to learn in safety. As a result, the company securely completed a drilling task 40% under budget and almost four months ahead of schedule.

At a time when many workers are concerned about the impacts of automation, our analysis shows that many workers who are most exposed to such disruption are also most likely to gain from XR. That’s because XR tools are all about human-machine collaboration that improves the productivity and capabilities of workers. It does not replace them. So, workers currently conducting repetitive or routine tasks, on assembly lines or in warehouses for example, can actually have their jobs transformed from being “at risk” to become “jobs of the future.”

We have calculated the effects of different technologies on workers in 14 industries across 14 G20 countries, and found that, on average, XR could be used to augment 21 percent of work time.

Our role in a braver new world

The opportunities brought by XR to economies and societies seem boundless. But, as with all new technologies, the quantum of opportunity is matched by equally formidable risks. These include personal data misuse, fake news and cybersecurity, which will be magnified to new levels in a world with XR. In addition, these technologies bring an entirely new set of more daunting dangers that threaten our individual, mental and societal wellbeing.

Today, for example, personal data relates to items like our credit card numbers or records of our purchase histories. But immersive technologies track far more intimate data: our feelings, judgments, reactions and broader set of traits that make us who we are. Imagine what happens when that information falls into the wrong hands.

Concern over fake news could turn to fake experiences. Consider a news source taking us to a controversial war zone through a virtual experience. As we see and feel the horrors of battle, how certain will we be that the experience has not been falsified or embellished in order to influence our opinion?

Where trolls may bully people through social media posts today, their avatars could “physically” intimidate users tomorrow. And antisocial behaviour in virtual environments could easily leak into the real world.

In Shanghai, an online gamer claimed his cyber-sword was illegitimately sold by another player. His efforts to report the incident as theft were rejected by police, but not before he stabbed the alleged offender in the real world. How will behaviors in the virtual world change our real-world characters and society?

This month, the World Health Organization is set to confirm video gaming addiction as a formal health disorder, and scientists are testing further conditions that may become prevalent as we spend more time in virtual environments. We simply do not yet understand the mental health implications for individuals.

At a societal level, spending more time in “perfect” virtual worlds means spending less time in the real world, including the rubbish, pollution, homelessness and social exclusion we would otherwise see. . The risk is that it becomes easier for citizens to disengage from the complicated and messy realities of life, and their civic obligation to improve it.

Responsible by design

How can business leaders and innovators get ahead of these risks?

Responsibility and ethics must be designed into the way XR tools are built and deployed, including the services and business models that use them. That means establishing early warning systems through a culture of constant questioning of the impacts of today and tomorrow. It requires drawing on a diverse range of experts – such as neuroscientists, mental health experts and behavioral theorists. And it means finding opportunities to responsibly supercharge workers through XR tools, including opportunities to upgrade the work of those most vulnerable to automation.

These tools will soon enter our daily lives, so we must urgently draw the lesson of today’s ‘tech backlash.’ The risks are too serious to let things play out and fix them later. Retrospective responsibility costs dearly.

The full potential of extended reality can only be achieved if we proactively identify and navigate the risks before damaging immersive experiences become too commonplace to address.

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