Ethical Challenges in AR / VR

mejdi hrairi
6 min readJul 21, 2022

With the rapid development of virtual reality and augmented reality, we have seen their potential to transform our relationship between technology and society. In many such projects, we have found that there is a growing opportunity to reinvent learning. However, immersive technology will bring new ethical challenges, from issues of access, privacy, consent, and harassment to future scenarios that we are just imagining now.

Of course, each new technology will destroy established practices. We have seen the Internet democratize information; watching social networks change our awareness of privacy, interpersonal relationships, and political debate; and we have witnessed the fact that the mobile era makes technology ubiquitous and completely portable. Many of the issues raised by these developments continue to be catalysts for debate in the education sector. Many of these issues arose in virtual and enhanced environments.

We have seen how realistic virtual reality experiences can hijack our senses. Research has shown that by allowing people to virtualize the experience of others, virtual reality experiences can counteract our racial or gender stereotypes. However, this also means that it is possible to strengthen negative stereotypes. We have faced the crisis of “fake news” in society and on campus. Are we prepared to deal with the effects of false reality on our academic work and dialogue? When human experience is no longer the touchstone of reality, how do we define digital literacy?

As technology and immersive graphics, tactile feedback, and social interactions that closely match our natural experience become increasingly realistic, we expect that the moral debate will intensify. What happens when the boundary between the virtual world and the physical world blurs? Will virtual reality become a tool for escaping reality, violence, and propaganda?

Augmented reality is going to play a large part in the future of technology. We have already seen its beginnings in the Pokémon Go phenomenon. And it has far more uses than gaming, with benefits that extend to health and wellbeing. Since 2017, developers have had the help of powerful tools in developing augmented reality products, and this trend is going to continue as the technology develops.
It should be borne in mind that there is a difference between virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). VR provides an environment where the user is interacting in a new world entirely, most typically associated with VR headsets. In AR, users are still interacting face to face, but with digital information overlaid on the real world. Google Glass is an example of an AR headset. Oculus Rift, the video game headset, is an example of a VR helmet. The two fields are related and merge as the so-called mixed reality.
As useful as AR can be for humanity, there are a considerable number of ethical challenges faced by developers, researchers, and marketers to create, deploying, and using AR technology. The main ethical challenges in terms of AR implementation include facial recognition and anonymity, mental and social side effects, unrealistic expectations, reality distortion, and manipulation.

Facial Recognition and Anonymity

There is a genuine concern that AR products can be used for facial recognition so that people have no real privacy. There are already several free applications that state that they use image analysis software for facial recognition. This technology might identify people on the streets, time-stamping faces against locations for real-time tracking.
Amazon recently came under heavy fire for their facial recognition technology, which has been deemed a threat to civil liberties. Anti-facial recognition technology is being developed in response to this, with make-up and scarves designed specifically to fool facial recognition devices.
Computer vision consultants from Iflexion argue that facial recognition has its own benefits, such as the location of missing people or protection of endangered species. It is also the least invasive form of identity verification.

Mental and Social Side Effects

While AR and VR have been touted as potential aids for mental health and general well-being, there is a concern over increasing social isolation with the rise of such technologies. While a link has yet to be established, many have argued that technology is contributing to the depersonalization of the human being. It could play a role in the increased reports of depression and other mental health issues.
The flip side is that people with PTSD or social anxiety can use VR to counter their fears, provided it is done correctly.

Unrealistic Expectations

Spending too much time in a cyber reality could lead people to have unrealistic expectations of real life. VR is said to have already massively boosted the adult entertainment industry. If over-exaggerated fantasies become too immersive, then it could lead to real life difficulties. There is little research on the effects that AR will have on individuals, especially children. It could lead to an increase in psychological issues with people having difficulty interacting in the real world if they spend too much time using AR technology.

Reality Distortion

Though this is not an issue right now, we could reach a time where it is difficult to distinguish between what is real and what is virtual while interacting through AR or VR. And there might be an obligation put on developers to make this distinction apparent. There is also the potential for misleading advertising. Advertisers selling property could augment it with pleasant features, so it looks better than it actually is. Augmented reality could distort actual reality misleadingly.
Children or those with special needs would need additional protection as they may have more difficulties in distinguishing real from virtual. When interacting in an AR environment, the environment itself is controlled by the developers.
Many researchers have argued that our environment has a significant effect on behavior, and people could easily be manipulated in this environment. The potential for this manipulation is huge, and therefore it is so important that the safeguards are deployed.

Manipulation and Crime

Because AR is unregulated with no legal infrastructure, users have little or no protection right now. Corporate entities could also get creative with false advertising or inventive tricks to trick people, not buying more products and services. People could be induced to buy certain products.
Then there is one of the worse forms of crime, where facial recognition technology is used as proof to falsely accuse and incarcerate a human being. The unfortunate truth is that all the wonderful advantages of the best technology can be used for the opposite intended purpose. And facial recognition technology is not actually as accurate as many people believe, so there is potential for error.

Ethical Considerations

There are many ethical considerations to consider in terms of AR. Currently, there is no regulatory infrastructure in place to moderate the development and deployment of AR technology. What is even more worrying is that the speed at which technology is advancing is too fast for the traditional legislative system to account for. Blockchain technology is an example of this. As soon as a bill is passed, new features have been added and created, rendering the bill more or less obsolete.
The control over AR software should be in the hands of customers so they can decide regarding what they want to see and what data is made accessible. Like all technology, AR is a two-edged sword and needs to be correctly wielded in order to be effective.
Information about the author
Adriana Blum is a Senior Mobile Developer and Technical Lead at Iflexion with 13+ years of experience in designing and implementing software applications for renowned companies. She specializes in cross-platform development on React Native and Xamarin and has broad experience in native iOS and Android development. Currently, Adriana is actively researching the capabilities and applications of AR and VR in the mobile industry to create innovative mobile solutions for outstanding user experience. Leveraging the potential of Apple’s ARKit and Core ML, she’s working on the prototypes of AI-based apps for Retail and entertainment.