Facebook recently announced that it would be rebranding itself as Meta. It will become the parent company of its social media platforms—Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram—and will roll out new ways of experiencing these platforms. Facebook also explained that it would be focussing on developing virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies—both falling under the umbrella term of extended reality (XR).
Jeremy Cooperstock, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at McGill, has been following companies’ movement toward XR technologies, but urges caution about the potential adverse impacts they could have.
“[Researchers] have long realized [that] VR, AR, and XR are huge markets, so it’s completely understandable that the big tech players want to be investing in these technologies,” Cooperstock wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune. “However, unlike conventional computing, VR, AR and XR should be viewed as powerful, persuasive technologies, much as social media has demonstrated itself to be, with the associated potential of causing tremendous harm to society.”
Although commercial ventures like Meta are some of the most well-known examples of XR because of their grandeur and sensationalism, many research labs are using XR technology to solve medical problems. In these labs, the users’ well-being are of the utmost concern.
McGill’s Shared Reality Lab (SRL) is one such endeavour. Led by Cooperstock, the research group aims to use XR technology to improve the way humans interact with each other and with computer interfaces.
One of SRL’s ongoing projects is the development of a technique for applying mixed reality technology to the treatment of psychosis, called avatar therapy. This therapy creates a visual representation of a patient’s hallucinations so that they can interact with them in a controlled environment, to minimize the distress these symptoms can cause.
“Our purpose was to enable therapists to experiment with various parameters to determine what factors are involved in the success of the therapy, such as degree of realism [of the avatar], fidelity to the patient’s hallucinations, and active versus passive involvement of the patient in the creation process [of the avatar],” Clara Ducher, a research assistant at SRL, wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune.
Ducher explained that the SRL takes considerations of inherent bias into account as part of the design process well before a project gets off the ground.
“One of the most important things I have learned while working on the avatar therapy project is that our work has ethical aspects that should be discussed from the very early stage of the design, and even after the delivery of the product,” Ducher wrote. “For instance, many character creation interfaces that we can encounter in games are restrictive in the diversity of avatars we can create. This phenomenon does not arise from [the] technical impossibility to make colour or shape variations, but rather from biases inherent to people involved in the design process.”
When considering the benefits that this program could bring to those struggling with mental illness, it is clear that VR has the potential to improve quality of life. But when it comes to commercial ventures such as Facebook, Cooperstock stresses the importance of continual dialogue between companies, researchers, and users.
“As I teach in my Human-Computer Interaction course, for such ‘socially dangerous’ technology, regardless of who is doing the developing, I believe it is critically important that we have active and ongoing conversations to think about risks, policies, and regulations that might be considered,” Cooperstock wrote.
As XR gains popularity in the public consciousness, more products harnessing this technology will become available. Not only will new methods of communication become possible, but new medical treatments may also become more accessible. With the proper priorities in mind—priorities that emphasize well-being, not profit—XR technology has the potential to do a lot of good for humanity.