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What will our identity be in virtual worlds?

The concept of identity is questioned by the emergence of virtual world and remote work.

The concept of identity is questioned by the emergence of virtual world and remote work.

Crédits photos : Cottonbro (Pexels)

A lot has been said this year about the development of the uses of immersive technologies. It is true that we have lived through a unique period in the history of our societies, with a drastic reduction in physical contact in all life situations. The professional world has been projected into “distance work” without much preparation and with often unsuitable tools. “Virtual worlds” offers have developed and the largest digital companies, GAFAM, have positioned themselves to participate in this movement, if not to take control of it.

Privacy, identity and personal data

A concept seems to be emerging from all these anouncements, little by little, in line with the increase of our digital uses: identity. This is not completely new since since our first steps on the internet we have built “profiles” describing us more and more precisely. By using avatars in virtual reality we have taken a new step. Indeed, the animation of a virtual double requires a certain number of additional sensors to record our movements, gestures (even involuntary) or expressions. The “profile” thus created is much more accurate than the one that comes classically from our interactions on the web. Several studies have even shown that this profile could characterise us, identify us, in an extremely precise way.

We are also living in a period when confidence in the managers of our profiles is particularly low. These private companies have been shaken by multiple cases of data leaks; the very economic model, based on the sale of our personal data, is not designed to reassure us.

The Oculus-Facebook merger case

In this context, Facebook’s latest announcements on the management of Oculus accounts have made the effect of a bomb. To make a simple summary, since all Oculus activities are merged into Facebook, it becomes required to use a Facebook account to use the headset, including for professional use. By creating the “Facebook Reality Lab”, the company shows a strong desire to integrate all the elements of its ecosystem. Future augmented reality tools will most likely also use a Facebook account, linked to a profile which, according to the platform’s TUC, must correspond to a natural person using his or her real name. In addition to all this data, the profile will also be enriched by contextual elements from the environment and gathered in a personal layer of the “Facebook LiveMaps“, a sort of global index linking objects from the real and augmented worlds.

In short, Facebook is building a particularly accurate identification of each user of its tools at a level that could make Cambridge Analytica analysts look like nice amateurs. Of course we take the example of Facebook here because it is the company that seems to be the most advanced in the field. The other digital giants in China and the USA seem to be embarking on the same strategy of building ecosystems.

What solutions do we have?

Faced with this observation, civil society is getting organised and, for the past 2 or 3 years, has begun to provide reflections and solutions. The recent publication of the XRSI’s Privacy Framework, for example, aims to better define data management between the provider of immersive solutions and the user. Groups such as the Open AR Cloud are laying the foundations for interoperability between immersive solutions and therefore identity portability. Numerous conferences and meetings have been held on this theme, including some organised by the Laval Virtual team, such as the Think Tank in 2018. For example, this meeting enabled Kent Bye to structure its “XR Ethics Manifesto” which addresses the issue of identity. The question is gradually moving out of the strictly immersive technology domain to question more widely in the digital environment as can be seen in this live “Re-enchanting the Internet” of 15 October 2020 in connection with the book “WEB 2.0 15 years already and after?“.

Awareness at the level of companies in the field is today an issue of European sovereignty. The key to entering the consumer market in AR and VR will be the simple identification of users because it will lead to the monetisation of applications. If the “store” model that we know today (and which already seems to be gaining ground) is owned by a few giant companies, it will be very difficult to influence developments (technical, financial, social, ethical, etc.) in the sector. It is high time for all professionals to get together in the existing associations and groups to make their voice heard and chart their own course in this “immersive” future.

About author

Digital coordinator at HCS Pharma, a biotechnological startup specialized in high content screening and complex diseases, I have also been an independant consultant in Augmented Reality since 2008.
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