The state-of-art in XR policy debates

To identify existing EU governance and regulatory gaps regarding XR, we are assessing the current state-of-art in regulatory, policy, and governance discourse in various areas of application and concern. Informed by discussions on the aforementioned elements, we propose a regulatory risk assessment approach for XR technology, identifying associated physical, mental, social, legal and abuse of power risks.

The results of the conducted mapping exercise are presented in terms of field of application of XR technologies:

Media and entertainment; it's the leading XR industry, with applications including gaming, social media, live entertainment, and adult entertainment that presents various challenges and limitations. Physical risks from XR technology may arise from rapid movement commands given by XR hardware/software to play games, which could seriously injure users or others around them. The psychological risks of XR technology for media consumers arise from two main sources: the level of immersion, which can lead to addiction and depersonalisation, and interactions with other users, which can be abusive. XR applications in media and entertainment pose more privacy and surveillance risks than traditional social media/internet usage due to the collection of biometric data and lack of regulation regarding such information collection/management. While innovations have been developed to address some of the privacy and surveillance risks, the XR industry has sometimes resisted such developments. 

Work and production;  aims at improving various elements of the manufacturing process and employee training. XR applications in the workplace can have a negative impact on employees. For instance, differences in digital literacy levels need to be addressed to mitigate the skills gap that may develop because of increased XR use in the workplace. Another is risk is that XR devices give employers greater access to their employees’ personal data, including biometrics, which can be used for intrusive monitoring in the workplace and opaque performance evaluation. Finally, there are risks posed by cybersecurity breaches of the XR operating system or applications running on the device, which could expose both employees and companies to the unwanted disclosure of sensitive information. 

Medical and healthcare; aims at assisting in the training of professionals, and patient diagnosis and treatment of both physical and mental illnesses. Challenges and limitations identified include hygiene of devices, inadequate legislation regarding the processing of patient’s biometric data collected from XR devices, and various psychosocial and medical consequences XR usage has on individual health in general – including simulator sickness, social isolation, PTSD from unexpected horror/violence exposure, and lack of ground truth..  

Marketing and retail; aims at allowing consumers to engage with offered goods in their own houses through AR, with the future potential for retailers to offer fully virtual shops accessed via VR devices. Privacy concerns are the key issue highlighted in academic and stakeholder reports, given the biometric data these devices may collect from consumers. These data can also lead to violations of consumer rights, with XR technology having the potential to be used by advertisers for manipulation purposes. Intellectual property rights can be easily infringed in XR environments, which can be exacerbated by problems in enforcing these rights in such contexts. 

Military, police and emergency services; enhances the ability to simulate high-risk scenarios for training purposes without directly exposing personnel to these risks. The use of XR in the security sector exposes operations to significant risks of leakage of sensitive data and classified information, which can even threaten safety of personnel and national security. Design decisions also need to be reconsidered in relation to this field, as life-threatening situations could occur when security personnel use XR devices that impair environmental awareness.  

Education; this includes various fields such as medicine, STEM, and the humanities, and to meet specific student needs. XR allows students to immerse themselves in environments which they would not otherwise be able to experience and simulate practical tasks or operations that may be too risky or expensive to perform in real-life. XR can have a negative impact on students with disabilities, as the technology may not be suitable for some disabilities and therefore not inclusive for all. Other challenges and limitations surrounding XR applications in education are largely data related, given the large amounts of personal data that can be collected from students using XR devices. In addition, low levels of technological literacy among educators and funding inequalities across the EU, could further hamper the adoption of such technologies. 

Urban planning and conservation; XR is applied to produce 3D models of above-ground infrastructure of cities, known as ‘digital twins’, which include buildings, transportation networks, parks, and other infrastructural features using 2D/3D imagery. XR used for urban planning and conservation purposes may expose the public to privacy and security threats, not only for users, but also for bystanders who may be recorded when XR devices are used in public spaces. 

XR users, particularly children, are exposed to a range of harms from harassment and grooming to gambling. Current age rating policies implemented by companies are cited as insufficient to reduce these harms, as the level of immersion in XR experiences is far greater than in traditional media and games. Such immersion can have other negative psychological effects on users, leading to depersonalisation and emotional investment in virtual worlds, which may result in users becoming less social in the real world and neglecting their real-life relationships. Tactics used to manipulate political beliefs, previously exposed in notorious cases such as Cambridge Analytica, may become stronger, with the creation of deepfakes, high levels of immersion and additional data collected from XR devices making political manipulation more precise and fake news more convincing. An urgent and effective response is therefore essential for the functioning of European democracy. 

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