Digital Extended Reality

In short

Digital Extended Reality technologies combine advanced computing systems (hardware and software) that can change how people connect with each other and their surroundings and influence or manipulate human actions through interactions with virtual environments.

Key ethical concerns surround cybersecurity and how these technologies may impact human behavioural and social dynamics. For example, technology mimicking human responses may give rise to responses as though it were actually human, while developments in Extended Reality may lead to undue influence from ‘nudging’ techniques.

More about Digital Extended Reality

Digital Extended Reality could change how people connect with each other and their surroundings in physical and virtual settings.

We include two many technologies in this family: Extended Reality (XR), which relates to virtual and simulated experiences using digital technologies, and Natural Language Processing (NLP), which allows computer systems to process and analyse a vast quantity of human natural language information (e.g., voice, text, images) and generate text in natural or artificial languanges. These two technologies can stand alone or be combined in certain devices. You can explore specific examples that fall in these categories below.

Potential ethical repercussions of such technologies include cognitive and physiological impacts as well as behavioural and social dynamics, such as influencing users’ behaviours, and monitoring and supervising people.

  • XR: Virtual Reality

    A virtual reality (VR) environment is completely simulated by digital means for its user. Currently, simulating VR focuses on visual aspects, but other senses are also being incorporated into these experiences.
  • XR: Augmented Reality

    Augmented Reality (AR) combines elements of real and virtual environments instead of trying to achieve complete immersion in virtual reality. Users can see the real world, with virtual objects superimposed upon or combined with the real environment.
  • XR: Avatars and the metaverse

    A metaverse emphasizes the social element of XR: multiple users can interact in one virtual or augmented enviroment. Avatars usually represent real people (or at least an animated version of them) and can be customised to some extent according to users’ preferences.
  • XR: Digital Twins

    These are digital replicas of physical objects that can possess dynamic features like the synchronisation of data between the physical twin and the digital twin to monitor, simulate, and optimize the physical object.
  • NLP: Text generation and analysis

    Learning procedures applied on big datasets of original text have allowed large language models (LLMs) to generate text at a level close to humans. In addition, techniques can analyse language content for its sentiments or opinions, understanding how the general public or a specific group feel about issues, events or topics.
  • NLP: Chatbots

    Conversational agents, or chatbots, use NLP to interact with users, orally or in writing. They already provide a wide array of services in customer support or with voice assistants.
  • NLP: Affective Computing

    Through subtle psychological strategies in dialogue, such as prioritising certain topics or directing the conversation in a direction, a chatbot can influence what another person thinks or believes. Ultimately, this can nudge the user to change their behaviour without forcing them, which is known as nudging.

    Ethical analysis

    ‘Ethics by design’ is at the core of TechEthos. It was necessary to identify the broad array of values and principles at stake in Digital Extended Reality, to be able to include them from the very beginning of the process of research and development. Based on our ethical analysis, we will propose how to enhance or adjust existing ethical codes, guidelines or frameworks.

    Core ethical dilemmas in XR

    In there a preference for material reality?

    The emergence of virtual reality prompts the question of whether virtual experiences mediated via XR are equivalent to experiences gained in the real world: do they evoke similar emotions, behaviours or judgements?

    Mode of being of virtual objects

    Digital objects are the types of things we experience in the digital world, like “an image” or “a video”. However, it is not clear how they can be individual objects if all they consist of is digital data. The philosophy of digital objecthood features several position. A moderate one is that digital objects exist insofar as they are experienced and conceptualised by a digital mind. A more radical position claims that virtual objects and environments are of the same nature as material objects and environments.

    Value of virtual objects

    If a distinction between virtual objects and material objects is kept, consequences of actions in material reality certainly do not equal the consequences of actions in virtual reality. For example, driving fast in virtual reality does not imply the same risk as driving fast on a material road.

    Nevertheless, some scholars have argued that virtual objects do retain some ethical value, not because of the equivalent consequences involved, but because values or behaviour patterns formed in XR can influence behaviours in the real world, for example in speeding on a road in one’s actual car, with negative consequences.

    More core ethical dilemmas are tackled in the ‘Analysis of Ethical Issues’ report.

    Read the report

    Applications and use cases in XR

    Media discourse on technologies both reflects and shapes public perceptions. As such, it is a powerful indicator of societal awareness and acceptance of these technologies. TechEthos is carrying out an analysis of the discourses on Digital Extended Reality in 13 EU and non-EU countries (Austria, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Romania, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, UK, and USA). The media analysis will complement insights into public awareness and perception obtained by engaging with members of the public.

    Work is ongoing and further details of this analysis will be available in June 2022.

    Values and principles in XR

    TechEthos is reviewing the current state of the law and policy responses related to the Digital Extended Reality, as evidenced in policy, legislation, case law and regulation at the international, European and national (through nine national case studies) levels. We are looking at existing and proposed legal frameworks, as well as current legal debates about the future of legal governance. Our research will focus on legal issues with significant human rights and socio-economic impacts that are of high policy relevance, particularly in the European context. Through this research, we will be able to identify gaps and challenges in existing law, and propose ways to enhance legal frameworks for the future.

    Work is ongoing and further details of this analysis will be available in the summer of 2022.

    Core ethical dilemmas in NLP

    In there a preference for material reality?

    Mode of being of virtual objects

    Value of virtual objects

    More core ethical dilemmas are tacked in the ‘Analysis of Ethical Issues’ report.

    Read the report

    Applications and use cases in NLP

    Media discourse on technologies both reflects and shapes public perceptions. As such, it is a powerful indicator of societal awareness and acceptance of these technologies. TechEthos is carrying out an analysis of the discourses on Digital Extended Reality in 13 EU and non-EU countries (Austria, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Romania, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, UK, and USA). The media analysis will complement insights into public awareness and perception obtained by engaging with members of the public.

    Work is ongoing and further details of this analysis will be available in June 2022.

    Values and principles in NLP

    Media discourse on technologies both reflects and shapes public perceptions. As such, it is a powerful indicator of societal awareness and acceptance of these technologies. TechEthos is carrying out an analysis of the discourses on Digital Extended Reality in 13 EU and non-EU countries (Austria, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Romania, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, UK, and USA). The media analysis will complement insights into public awareness and perception obtained by engaging with members of the public.

    Work is ongoing and further details of this analysis will be available in June 2022.

    Applicable rules and guidance

    TechEthos is considering the state of ethical and legal guidance and frameworks and will identify areas for improvement and make recommendations.

    Existing ethical guidelines, frameworks and codes

    At this stage of the project, TechEthos partners have completed a scan of ethical guidance (in the form of codes, guidelines and frameworks) that already exist specifically for Digital Extended Reality or which are considered relevant in ethical discussions on this technology family. The following is a short summary of the findings of the ‘Methodology for ethical analysis, scan results of existing ethical codes and guidelines’ report, which can be accessed in full via the button below.

    Ethical codes. The project came across a single reference to a proposed code of ethics for Virtual Reality (VR). This represents a finding in itself which could have various explanations, including the way in which the search was conducted.

    Several ethical frameworks have been proposed by researchers for Digital Extended Reality technologies. Among the perspectives they consider important are acceptability (whether a technology can be judged as instrumentally or morally desirable), trustworthiness, and a consideration of how behaviour in the virtual world impacts the physical world.

    Ethical guidelines. At this stage, many researchers consider Extended Digital Reality to be quite diverse and lacking clear guidelines and standards, whether in the fields of health care or ICT. The recommendations proposed fall into or combine two broad categories, asking for general ethical guidelines in line with the general risks of research, or technology-specific ones, considering the special features of certain technologies such as re-entering into the real world after a VR experience.

    Read the report
    Legal frameworks

    TechEthos is reviewing the current state of the law and policy responses related to Digital Extended Reality, as evidenced in policy, legislation, case law and regulation at the international, European and national (through nine national case studies) levels. We are looking at existing and proposed legal frameworks, as well as current legal debates about the future of legal governance. Our research will focus on legal issues with significant human rights and socio-economic impacts that are of high policy relevance, particularly in the European context. Through this research, we will be able to identify gaps and challenges in existing law, and propose ways to enhance legal frameworks for the future.

    Work is ongoing and further details of this analysis will be available in the summer of 2022.

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    TechEthos has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme under Grant Agreement no. 101006249. This website and its contents reflect only their authors' view. The Research Executive Agency and the European Commission are not responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained herein.