Ethical Considerations of Extended Reality (XR)

White Papers Offer Insights into the Ethics of Extended Reality in Various Applications


Digital technologies have significantly changed how we sense and interact with reality in an increasingly virtual world. So much so that now – as we begin to move closer toward Extended Reality (XR) technologies — the realm of human experience is being extended by integrating immersive computer-generated environments and information with the physical world.

XR refers to the way humans interact with, experience, and visually interpret the physical environment through a digital interface. It encompasses a range of technologies including Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR). As XR allows users to see the world in new ways, the autonomous and intelligent systems enabling this emergent field also raise ethical questions about the collection and usage of user data.

To explore the ethical implications of XR, the IEEE Standards Association (IEEE SA) recently published a series of white papers through the IEEE Global Initiative On Ethics Of Extended Reality. These white papers provide insights into XR ethics from researchers, industry professionals, business leaders, and policymakers across the world.

Extended Reality (XR) and the Erosion of Anonymity and Privacy

Author: Dr. Mark McGill, Lecturer, Glasgow Interactive Systems Group (GIST), School of Computing Science, University of Glasgow
Contributors: Kent Bye, Michael Middleton, Monique J. Morrow, and Samira Khodaei

XR technologies are on their way to seeing pervasive and widespread adoption, fuelled first by the adoption of VR for entertainment, and later by the transition towards all-day, everyday, wearable consumer AR glasses, and the powerful spatial computing capabilities that such devices will unlock.

XR devices necessarily pack sophisticated hardware to sense the world around them (e.g. LiDAR, camera arrays, microphone arrays) and the XR user (e.g. physiological sensing, EEG) – turning everything we see, hear, and experience into data that can be recorded, processed, and acted upon.

Such sensing and data are fundamental to driving the contextual intelligence and ability to understand and augment the world around us that makes XR, and AR in particular, so compelling as the future of personal computing.

However, our ever-increasing capability to infer insights and further process and utilize this data towards unanticipated and unintended ends poses significant privacy risks, both to XR users and bystanders.

This paper highlights some of the key capabilities that XR adoption will unlock – around augmented intelligence, personal and distributed surveillance, and augmented perception – and considers the privacy implications XR has for users, bystanders, and society more broadly. The paper then reflects on the growing need to understand, anticipate, and protect against the capacity for XR to both consensually and non-consensually infringe upon the user and bystander privacy.

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Who Owns Our Second Lives: Virtual Clones and the Right to Your Identity

Author: Thommy Eriksson, Senior Lecturer, Ph.D.
Contributors: Mathana and Nathalie Mathe

In VR and to some extent AR, the user encounters different kinds of entities.

There are many VR experiences where the user meets, for example, other users or pre-recorded presentations from a guide or a narrator. It can also be Non-Player Characters (NPCs), which are characters controlled in real-time by artificial intelligence (AI) or more simple algorithms. In their appearances, these entities can be apparently artificial (robots), non-human (animals), and human-like.

With current technology, it is quite easy for users to understand if they meet another human, a recording, or an NPC. But when these entities become more and more advanced and life-like, it will be increasingly difficult to understand what kind of entity they interact with. These entities all have in common that they have an identity.

This paper discusses different aspects and issues that arise when this identity corresponds to and overlaps with the identity of actual humans. These actual humans can be alive, or they can be deceased, and both represent challenging ethical issues.

The arguments will mostly concern identities in VR since that is where researchers and developers have the most experience and empirical data. However, most of the argument should be applicable to augmented reality applications as well.

The paper suggests a few means of handling the ethical concerns, most importantly a “bodyright”. If this is implemented it can work in a similar way to copyright, but controlling how others can use a user’s identity, both mental and physical.

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Social and Multi-User Spaces In VR: Trolling, Harassment, and Online Safety

Authors: Michelle Cortese: Design Manager @ Meta (Reality Labs), Adjunct Professor @ NYU ITP, Jessica Outlaw: Metaverse Researcher & Storyteller
Contributors: Sara Carbonneau and Thommy Eriksson

While social and multi‐user XR experiences have only started to approach mainstream adoption in recent years, issues of harassment and user safety have already emerged. This is not surprising, given the already long history of users harassing others in online spaces in a variety of ways.

Developers of massive multi‐user online (MMO) spaces have had to pay particular attention to issues around user safety, but problems can arise in any online game or XR experience that enables user‐to‐user communication—whether text‐based bulletin boards, online multi‐user games, or social immersive VR chat rooms.

At its most extreme, these issues can involve the stalking, grooming, sexual exploitation, and even murder of minors. More commonly, it may simply involve users creating an unpleasant experience for other users. In the latter case, the market incentive may be enough to help companies consider issues around user safety.

However, there is a strong moral case to be made for taking the user experience of other users into account when designing and implementing any multi‐user experience. Creators of social VR for children or vulnerable adults will have additional pressures to ensure a safe experience for their users. Noting that many of the issues have common ground with other forms of online interaction, this paper gives consideration to the resources available to help developers and consumers concerned about problematic online communications. It also discusses in greater detail specific or unique issues that relate to XR.

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Extended Reality (XR) Ethics in Education

Author: Prof. Eleni Mangina: School of Computer Science, University College Dublin (UCD), Ireland
Contributors: Athanasios Christopoulos, Didier Contis, Georgia Livieri, Farzin Matin, Mathana, Meredith Noelle, Nathalie Mathe, Rebekah Davis, Samira Khodaei, Stylianos Mystakidis, Thommy Eriksson, and Tobias Loetscher

Immersive technologies in education offer a number of opportunities, such as facilitating Authentic Learning Experiences, empowering learners as creative designers and makers, integrating immersive storytelling in learning, integrating immersive learning in STEM, fostering collaboration with Social VR and other XR technologies, cultivating immersive and blended-reality learning spaces and laboratories, and developing the capabilities of the future workforce.

Utilizing AI in XR can reshape human experience and social interactions in education, but one of the barriers to adoption is the lack of policy on XR ethics for education. Ethics XR for education is a broad topic that needs to be present within the different levels of education.

This paper describes the most important issues for XR ethics in education at all levels. It proposes an initial set of recommendations in this space with the aim that XR in education practices is governed by ethical procedures in order to protect all human subjects and further develop a more detailed policy on ethics XR for education for reference from all levels.

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Extended Reality (XR) Ethics in Medicine

Authors: Jason Evans, MMIE, Co-Founder/ President, Nurenyx Inc., Palak Patel, Ph.D., Co-Founder, Nurenyx Inc., Georgia Livieri, Head of the Executive Committee, Cyprus Unit of the International Chair in Bioethics

This paper describes current advancements (i.e., commercial and R&D products) and provides a conceptual understanding for analyzing complex ethics involved with XR technology applied to fields in healthcare, medicine, and pharmacy. Current and potential ethical challenges, risks, legality, regulations, and opportunities associated with the XR technology are also further discussed.

The paper analyzes the following specific topics:

  • The need for XR Ethics in Medicine
  • Current applications and use cases of medical XR
  • Laws and Policies for medical XR
  • Inclusivity, accessibility, and privacy considerations
  • Ethical issues and regulatory challenges
  • A proposed ethical framework and toolkits
  • A holistic overview of Medical XR

Medical XR applications are actively being explored and developed, especially in the fields of cardiology, neuroscience, and pharmacy. There are ethical and legal issues that need to be addressed before XR can be implemented in common and routine medical use, highlighting the principle of respecting patients’ privacy and autonomy.

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Extended Reality (XR) Ethics & Diversity, Inclusion, Accessibility

Authors: Dylan Fox, Coordination and Engagement Team Lead, XR Access, Isabel Guenette Thornton, Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology at Cambridge University

It is vital that XR is developed inclusively, particularly in the early stages of industry development during which XR platforms build foundations and set standard practices.

As an immersive and visceral medium that often engages with large quantities of personal data, XR technologies may be complex and challenging to develop in an equitable, accessible, and inclusive way, but the technology’s huge potential for both good and ill demands that we try.

This paper examines the discrimination that marginalized communities face in access to technology, identifies the challenges in creating accessibility and equity for XR, and suggests some opportunities for improving equity and representation that ethically-designed XR could bring about.

It also includes recommendations for both policymakers and XR creators in order to achieve XR’s potential and avoid its harm. For policymakers, these include clarifying accessibility, anti-discrimination, and privacy laws; investing in research and development for an inclusive XR ecosystem; and establishing standards for equity and inclusion in XR experiences. For creators, it lists best practices for designing for people with visual, deaf and hard of hearing, mobility, and cognitive disabilities, as well as some techniques that will benefit all users.

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Extended Reality (XR) Business, Finance, and Economics

Author: Michael T. Middleton, CAMS Managing Director, SeedBolt Studios LLC
Contributors: Samira Khodaei and Mark McGill

This paper examines XR ethics recommendations in terms of major business and economic structures. First, corporate structures as a whole are reviewed, including board member actions, labor practices, trade associations, and 3rd-party supplier expectations.

Next, the paper reviews broad economic systems on a global, regional, and national level for potential XR touchpoints. It then turns to the more granular fields of financial services, banking, insurance, and related regulatory matters with a focus on topics including accessibility and privacy rights. Further discussion elaborates on future areas where recommendations may be needed, including broad distributed ledger applications of XR, cryptocurrencies, and more.

This paper makes 24 initial recommendations for governments, regulatory bodies, grant-making organizations, boards of directors, and consumer groups to consider. It is expected that future efforts in this space will focus on each area in more specific terms, possibly with the result of additional reports examining each space in detail.

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