While virtual reality has been around for some time, recent events have catapulted the technology to the forefront of many people’s imaginations, and we’re not just talking about those who are into gaming anymore. As the world transitions to a new way of living, many are looking to VR technology to solve real-life challenges, including things like remote work, learning, training and even entertainment. According to GlobalData forecasts, by 2030 the VR market is expected to be worth $28 billion. But with great innovation comes great responsibility, and questions regarding privacy and the safeguarding of information in the digital sphere are quickly becoming paramount.
Virtual reality is all about using digital technology to create an immersive artificial world that appears very realistic. In the 1950s one of the earliest VR systems, Sensorama was invented. Since then, VR technology has gone through many cycles and upgrades, being used by NASA and MIT in the 1980s and then finding its niche in the gaming world with companies like Sega, Sony, Microsoft and Google at the turn of the 21st century.
In 2010, the first Oculus Rift headset was designed. Today, we are seeing the second and third generation of VR devices being rolled out by established players like Oculus (following a prominent buyout by Facebook in 2014 for $2 billion), Google and Sony. Even Apple is rumoured to be working on several virtual and augmented reality headset prototypes. Initial complaints about dizziness and nausea are also being ironed out by game and app designers, who are focused on securing better technology that makes VR devices more enjoyable to wear and easier to use. But while interest and investment in VR technology has always been high, mainstream adoption has never fully materialised. That could all be about to change.
The Future of VR
As the world has been forced to alter the way in which we interact, the potential to use VR in our everyday life has never been more appealing. In the past year, with record numbers of people being required to stay at home, the gaming market,unsurprisingly, grew 19.6%. According to research from market analyst firm, Omdia, 6.4 million consumer VR headsets were sold in 2020, but they expect that number to jump to an incredible 45 million by 2025. From fitness, to tourism and now even remote work, VR is standing on the edge of its future.
Niall Campion, co-founder and director of VRAI, a Dublin based company that uses VR simulation to provide remote training, explained to siliconrepublic.com last year that his company is “banking on the fact that VR is going to increasingly be part of the workplace of the future.”
While businesses like Zoom initially saw their popularity surge during 2020, it wasn’t long before many remote workers started to tire of video conferencing calls and meetings. With VR technology, the opportunity to truly engage with colleagues is once again a possibility, even if you can’t be in the same room. But will the technology finally be able to capitalise on its hype, and will it offer the protection users will demand in order to feel safe working on it?
A Question of Privacy
No one can deny the meteoric rise of digitalisation within every aspect of our world. But as technology creeps into more areas of our work and home life, the need to secure private information, especially on public platforms, presents a real dilemma. Last summer, Facebook announced that future Oculus headsets would require a Facebook login, a move that polarised VR users around the world. For those who value privacy and don’t like the idea of a tech giant having access to their data, the move was a pretty bitter pill to swallow. VR headsets, like those made by Oculus, are able to collect a wealth of data, including physical features, content, cookies, movement, environmental, dimensions and more.
In a recent study,researchers used 95 time points in VR to collect data from participants. Using this data, they were able to identify individuals with 90% accuracy. The implications for the misuse of such information could be staggering. Companies like Facebook have faced US senate inquiries over emergent privacy issues in the past, and are presently scrambling to get ahead of the issue. Whether or not they will be able to instil confidence in potential VR users is still debatable.
In December 2020, in a note to employees, Andrew Bosworth, the head of Facebook Reality Labs wrote,
“I don’t want us to just meet consumer expectations for privacy today. I want us to differentiate our products on the basis of privacy. Let other companies scramble to keep up with us.”
As VR and AR technology begins to infiltrate the mainstream, companies involved in its implementation are examining the ways in which they apply and store user data. The Virtulab, a digital technology solutions company based in the UK, appreciates just how important safety and security is to a potential user. Last year The Virtulab team launched its own avatar-based software platform, Virtuworx, giving clients the ability to meet up in a custom-built digital environment to plan, train, work and learn remotely. The platform offers a unique blend of the physical and virtual world, allowing users to engage in a meaningful way that also saves time, money and decreases a company’s carbon footprint.
The Virtulab is part of the CG Tech group, an investment holding company headed by Chairman Niall Carroll, with a diversified portfolio of service businesses operating across oil and gas, petrochemicals, events, film studios, construction and virtual technologies. The Virtulab team was previously using the technology as an in-house productivity solution for oil and gas engineers. After realising they were already harnessing the technology to transform an emerging global challenge, remote work, the team quickly mobilised and the Virtuworx platform was rolled out in record time.
“At The Virtulab we recognised our opportunity to add meaning and fun to the process of remote work. But we also understood the importance of data privacy and have developed our software accordingly,” explains David Cummins, Managing Director of The Virtulab.
As VR now reaches critical mass, emerging companies like The Virtulab are in prime position to prove they have what it takes to not only bring clients cutting edge technology, but also foster trust between themselves and their users, an opportunity a global company like Facebook might not have the time for.
Niall Carroll, Chairman of CG Tech, is mindful of the unique position his team holds in this emerging market.
“At CG Tech, we operate an ecosystem approach to business. Our board of directors is made up of owner-operators of our subsidiaries, meaning there’s an openness and transparency that runs throughout the entire group. Our employees and clients trust us to do the right thing and to act always in their best interests,” says Carroll.
While corporations such as Facebook use your data to sell advertising and more, the Virtuworx platform takes a privacy-first approach to software development, insisting that all data be anonymised and aggregated before being analysed - a directive from Niall Carroll himself.
CG Tech Chief Ecosystem Officer Jason English explains how corporate culture translates into specific features on the platform.
“When looking at what VR technology can bring to businesses, we wanted to make sure we created something that was able to capitalise on the potential while also addressing any pitfalls. For Virtuworx, security and privacy are primary objectives for the design team,” notes English.
As the world enters a new phase of the digital age, the question of privacy and who owns our data will continue to be a hot-button issue. Companies like The Virtulab are banking on being able to secure trust in a way that big corporations might not be able to. Their success could be key to unlocking mainstream VR adoption, forever changing the future of work and play.