Virtual reality is booming in the workplace amid the pandemic. Here's why

Key Points
  • Virtual reality used within businesses is forecasted to grow from $829 million in 2018 to $4.26 billion in 2023, according to ARtillery Intelligence.
  • It is being used for training, work meetings or to provide better customer service during the pandemic.
  • Facebook's VR headset brand recently released an Oculus for Business platform aimed at commercial use.
  • Legal experts warn of data privacy breaches and other crimes in the virtual world.

Once again the era of virtual and augmented reality might be upon us.

After years of promises and false starts, Covid-19 has driven a record number of workers remotely and could finally usher in their regular use of VR and AR at home — or at least give the tech a push on the path to mainstream.

A PwC report last year predicted that nearly 23.5 million jobs worldwide would be using AR and VR by 2030 for training, work meetings or to provide better customer service. According to a report by ABI Research this year, before the pandemic the VR market was forecasted to grow at a 45.7% compound annual rate, surpassing $24.5 billion in revenue by 2024. Virtual reality used within businesses is forecasted to grow from $829 million in 2018 to $4.26 billion in 2023, according to ARtillery Intelligence.

Companies like Spacial, which creates something like a virtual reality version of Zoom, has seen a 1,000% increase in usage since March, according to head of business Jacob Loewenstein. IrisVR, which specializes in immersive software for architecture and planning, can hardly keep up with demand for new subscribers, said CEO Shane Scranton. Meanwhile Accenture, a multinational professional services company, is using VR exercises for new recruitment techniques.

Businesses out of VR-focused global accelerator Vive X have raised some $60 million within the last year with the largest rounds of funding in the healthcare and enterprise training areas. And Facebook's VR headset brand recently released an Oculus for Business platform aimed at commercial use.

Challenges that lie ahead

But with the expansion of VR and AR could come a host of new opportunities for abuse according to legal experts: privacy and data concerns chief among them but tort and even harassment cases possible. As happened after the internet and email, laws for new technology need time to catch up. And company's need time to figure out best practices. Some matters may easily be regulated by current laws while others will need precedents.

Employee avatars take part in a virtual meeting using VR company Spatial's platform.

The question may not be whether immersive technology is finally ready for the public, but rather, are we ready for it?

Experts agree that privacy is the biggest concern. "With VR/AR technology we're collecting information that to date has not generally been collected, certainly not in any broad scale," said David Hoppe, author of "Esports in Court, Crimes in VR, and the 51% Attack." There are legitimate reasons for companies to record physiological responses like eye movement or heart rate from users. For example, a company may want to prevent VR sickness. But that information could also be used to derive psychological responses — gauging sexual preferences, proclivity to violence and degrees of empathy. And that data is very valuable to those trying to reach consumers, explained Hoppe.

"Trying to maintain the privacy of those types of things will be very important," said Darrell West, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at The Brookings Institution. If an employee claimed their expected privacy was breached, they could sue an employer or company depending on their state's laws. The most contentious cases are sure to end up in court. "The problem is that judges aren't trained on emerging technologies," said West.

According to Perkins Coie's survey, health care will be the area most disrupted by immersive technologies over the next year. For example, doctors can use AR body mapping to see medical stats directly on a patient, use VR in training and education or even a surgery run-through with a virtual version of the patient's body. Patient's meanwhile could utilize the technologies for things like physical therapy.

A Pandora's box in the workplace

But record-keeping practices are a concern, according to Ann Marie Painter, a labor and employment lawyer with the firm. "That's the first, most important issue to the extent that the interactions in an AR/VR environment are recorded and kept," said Painter. "That's where maybe the law hasn't caught up yet."

Meanwhile, according to a survey by XR Association, which represents headset and technology manufacturers across the industry, 54% of respondents said they were updating privacy policies and disclosures regarding consumer data in 2020.

But there's even more unwelcome behavior possible. Tort law in the virtual world will be a "huge" issue, according to Schuyler M. Moore, a corporate entertainment lawyer at Greenberg Glusker. "All the torts that you can commit in person you can commit rather easily in the VR world," said Moore. A 2016 survey by research firm The Extended Mind and social VR platform Pluto VR says 49% of female respondents and 36% of male respondents reported sexual harassment while using VR.

An office with augmented reality features using Spatial's virtual platform is seen with an employee avatar and in-person worker wearing a VR headset.

Possibilities of identity in the virtual world will also expand. "What latitudes will employees have to choose their avatar?" said Hoppe. Or perhaps more troublesome, how will one be permitted to see someone else? With AR glasses, explained the author, one might view another in a provocative way — in different clothing or even a different gender.

With protective speech laws and slower tech adoption rates, the U.S. is arguably behind the curve compared to other countries in regulating virtual spaces. In South Korea a cybercrime investigations team has been looking into crimes in virtual worlds and multiplayer games — like money laundering or fraud — since 2003.

Belgium police investigated a user in 2007 for "virtual rape" in the popular world-building game Second Life. Recently, the Cyberspace Administration of China has banned "fake news" created with virtual reality. And many European countries have prohibited virtual child pornography, although it is protected in the U.S. under the First Amendment. 

All the torts that you can commit in person you can commit rather easily in the VR world.
Schuyler M. Moore
corporate entertainment lawyer at Greenberg Glusker

Misuses in the workplace are likely some time off as the technology has failed to reach the mainstream. But the litany of possibilities of crime and abuse in the virtual world can be imagined transferring to the enterprise sector. 

There have been a few notable cases in the U.S. The developer of AR game Pokémon Go settled a lawsuit last year with people who suffered through PokéStops placed near their homes. A wrongful termination suit filed last year claims Second Life's parent company mishandled user's data and allowed money laundering and simulated acts of child molestation. A Second Life art gallery was sued for trademark violation and a 2012 class-action suit included at least 57,000 users who lost virtual property in the game.

"The internet was around for a while before any internet-specific laws were enacted. Some of them were good; some of them were bad," said Eugene Volokh, author of a University of Pennsylvania Law Review article on legal challenges presented by VR and AR. Although laws generally apply without regard to technology, in the future those laws can be supplemented, he explained.

There are a couple reasons Volokh thinks that actions in virtual worlds may avoid the law altogether. The first he describes as the Bangladesh problem, which refers to the ability of people in a virtual space to be located across the globe. Prosecution of harassment, for example, between users in the U.S. and a far-off locale like Bangladesh will be unlikely.  "Law enforcement is going to become even more difficult because even more people are going to be half a world away," said Volokh.

The other reason is that many issues arising in VR and AR will be solved by their hosting platforms. It could be analogous to Zoom's solution to a rash of "Zoom bombing" incidents where unwanted callers jumped into video conferences. The company simply added encryption and privacy controls. A VR heckler, rather than be virtually dragged out of the venue by law enforcement, could instead be muted by a moderator. If someone is walking down the street in an offensive avatar, one may simply block that too.

Oculus VR head Andrew Bosworth: Virtual reality the next major platform
Oculus VR head Andrew Bosworth: Virtual reality the next major platform

Meanwhile, Spacial's goal, said Loewenstein, is to optimize both safety and user freedom. Within the program, for example, one has the superpower to teleport into different rooms and spaces — potentially popping up a bit too close to a co-worker. Although they haven't had complaints yet, they are working on a "physical space bubble" for avatars so that one can't get creepily close to another employee.

"We are trying to comprehensively design to both unleash the superpower but not unleash it too much so that it enables you to violate social norms," said Loewenstein.

Concerning privacy, Loewenstein noted that his company only collects metadata. As a subscription service, he said Spatial had an incentive to keep his customer's information safe. He said one should look up the hardware chain for the possibility of more shady dealings with data.

At IrisVR, Scranton said social norms are figured out quite quickly in the virtual space. "The more immersed you are and the more you can see other people, it really starts to feel like you're interacting with that physical person," said Scranton.

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