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Virtual reality: potential pitfalls and how to avoid them

Sarah Lima looks at how VR and augmented reality are impacting education

Posted by Hannah Vickers | April 04, 2017 | Secondary

By Sarah Lima, senior associate in the TMT team at law firm Dentons 

Virtual reality and augmented reality in education

Virtual reality and augmented reality (VR/AR) have caught headlines over the last year, with the explosion of Pokémon Go, the high-profile legal battle between Facebook and ZeniMax following Facebook's purchase of Oculus Rift and the mass market emergence of VR headsets with Google Cardboard.

Educational Uses

Educational providers for tiny tots to post graduates all have potential requirements that VR/AR providers are seeking to fulfil and companies are springing up with new products and ideas for the education environment. Many of these focus on the STEM subjects, with products using 3D holographic images that can be manipulated by students and products geared to bringing books to life by projecting three-dimensional video and audio from a printed page. Some publishers aim to enrich student understanding of the subject matter by linking 3D animation and audio to introduce the student to material beyond what is presented in the physical book. 

Education can expand beyond the physical classroom: some providers enable students to take a first-person view of historical events which can be experienced from the safety of the classroom. Others are increasing the appeal of the museum experience, either by enabling students to 'virtually visit' the museum or by enhancing the field trip experience by bringing exhibitions to life in the museum. Those in higher education are benefiting from VR/AR products for practising surgical or other practical techniques. VR/AR are valuable tools in expanding the application of remote learning, enabling users to be 'in control' of their learning experience via their avatars. 

Many of the existing VR/AR technologies are targeted at supporting learning of students with special educational needs. Alternative approaches to teaching and aiding understanding and knowledge retention may have a significant impact for those students with a less traditional approach to learning. 

Practical Issues

VR/AR is likely to be the next major bandwidth issue, coming at a time when competition for bandwidth is intensifying because of the internet of things and the number of connected devices. This may be mitigated as 5G/cloud arrive to help create bandwidth. Moving data hungry VR/AR on to wireless systems will be a big step freeing users from the constraints of many tethered systems. Recognising that networks in educational institutions may be insufficient to support the speed of streaming VR/AR content, many educational VR/AR providers are providing content that does not require internet connection for use. There is an increase in the availability of mobile phone based VR/AR platforms, which may enable schools to provide access to the platforms whilst using students' own devices. However this runs the risk of creating a two-tier system, with well-funded schools or affluent students being able to take greater advantage of the development in technology over their peers. 

Legal and Ethical Issues

There are a variety of legal and ethical challenges ahead for VR/AR.  

Intellectual property is already an area of contention, with Facebook being ordered to pay $500m to a US video game company called ZeniMax for Oculus Rift's VR headset infringement of ZeniMax's intellectual property rights. There are a number of challenges regarding use of registered IP in a virtual world, such as brand misuse in a context for which that IPR is not registered in the real world (e.g. use of a brand on a virtual t-shirt). Clear rules need to address ownership of IPR in the virtual world. Different sites and product owners will take different approaches, with some considering the generation of any new IP whilst using the program to vest in the program owner, rather than the originator. There will be interest in the insights gleaned from user data and usage patterns. Educational institutions will need to be clear what the IP restrictions are on any given platform or program to ensure they do not inadvertently give away IP that they want to retain ownership of and do not use a third party's IPR in an inappropriate way.

Privacy

As gadgets interact with users in closer proximity, privacy is a major concern. Eye tracking, reaction times, ease of movement and facial recognition are all ways in which the VR/AR products interact with consumers, however the data that is stored and processed may amount to sensitive personal data. A number of VR/AR applications focus on shared experiences, with repercussions for the sharing of user details including location with appropriate permissions. The changes in data protection and privacy laws as a result of the General Data Protection Regulation in the European Union mean that the legal and financial consequences of data collection and sharing and privacy practices may be significant. Appropriate safeguards need to be in place and educational institutions will need to ensure that they choose their software, hardware and content providers with a view to their data protection practices. These may include the collecting of explicit consent, age gating and 'privacy impact assessments'.

Content

Teachers need to be aware of the nature of the content that they are sharing with students. The VR/AR industry is mostly self-regulated at present (such as the Oculus 'comfort' rating, which considers the impact the content may have on the user). However it is reasonable to expect an extension to the current classification standards regime to deal, not only with the nature of the content, but also with the potential impact on students considering the inherently more involved nature of VR/AR experiences. 

Health and Safety

Teachers should be aware of some of the physical effects VR/AR may have on individuals, such as nausea, eye strain, risk of seizures, and the risk of collisions as a result of having real world sight distorted or hidden, as health and safety law will apply to the use of VR/AR technology in schools. Teachers may want to ensure that the VR/AR systems they offer to students provide appropriate protection from other users. One of the many appealing aspects of VR/AR is the ability to interact with other students that are situated remotely. However this ability could be abused by third parties looking to target vulnerable users. 'Safe' areas in VR/AR may be necessary to lock out inappropriate users. The potential for anonymity in using a VR/AR platform with an avatar may mean that parents and teachers push for greater disclosure of real world identities before allowing access to such 'safe' areas. 

Trespass

Pokémon Go was criticised for its potential to encourage trespass on to private land raising questions as to whether a user's trespass could incur liability for the VR/AR provider – could this logic be expanded to confer liability on the educational institution that enables the use of the technology? VR/AR licence terms usually require users not to break the law, and it would seem sensible that teachers ensure that student users (or their parents) also accept such disclaimers as part of their use to avoid liability arising for the educational institution. 

Conclusion

The evolution in VR/AR for education promises new ways of encouraging learning and development, but there are a variety of legal issues and ethical challenges ahead. The technology is cutting edge and not yet mature, so laws may struggle to keep up and existing laws designed for a non-virtual world will have to be applied in ways that were never foreseen. Educational institutions need to be aware a number of risks and issues will need to be considered carefully before VR/AR technologies are introduced in the classroom. 

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