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Posted on : Wednesday 19th February 2020 02:49 PM

VR Could Be The Last Nail in Privacy’s Coffin. Unless…

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Peter Hartwell, CTO at TDK InvenSense, describes some of the behavioral and cultural shifts happening with virtual reality and 360-degree video contents. Does it spell the end of individual privacy or a new beginning?

Emergence is one of the most interesting concepts in the study of complex systems. Emergence occurs when an entity is observed to have properties its parts do not have on their own1. Experts in cyber-physical systems study these unintended consequences, often trying to predict failure points in fields as diverse as global electronic banking and air traffic control. But emergence can also describe cultural shifts caused by widespread adoption of a new technology.

One of the unexpected consequences I have come across in my creation of 360-degree video content for consumption in a VR headset is that nothing escapes the camera lens. One early example was when I was viewing a clip for the tenth time, at yet another angle, and observing someone, who thought no one was looking, trying to remove something from between their teeth. It’s such a common thing, but something we reserve for a private moment. And yet there it was, preserved forever, and it got me thinking.

The 360 camera is the last step in the loss of our privacy. From the first time we went online to the first time we carried a device that pinged a fine-grained network of towers for connectivity, we have slowly given away ourselves for the convenience of being in touch and accessing information. So now, with the possibility of these cameras anywhere and everywhere in public, we will always be on stage, with the chance to be viewed by others. Spooky? Perhaps.

Yet, emergence is about unintended consequences. For example, the cell phone network has the “correct time”, so it’s easy to keep phone clocks synchronized to the world’s definition of now. If you are late to a meeting, you can no longer blame the clock for being slow or even stopped. Being late is now, at its simplest, a demonstration that something else was more important. However, I do believe people today are more on time than they were in the past.

Now imagine we have extended our cars’ dashcams to 360 degrees. It’s no longer a matter of catching the right angle for a traffic collision; the dashcam will capture all angles. Your camera and mine. If I was distracted and caused that minor fender bender, I won’t be able to jump out of the car and start ranting about you this and you that. Rather, since it’s captured as it happened, I will have no choice but to own up to what I have done. There is no discussion, no he said/she said, just the data.

And maybe this will make us better people.

The 360-degree camera also has the potential to expand journalism. A scoop will be the person with a 360-degree camera who is at the right place at the right time, so we can all share the experience. No more dispute about how many people were at the U.S. Presidential Inauguration: just pop on your glasses, stand on the National Mall and experience as little or as much of it as you like for yourself.

Today, we are at the technology maturity point where we can use computers to alter or create realistic video images to entertain us with exotic stories. But the potential also exists to create new or different versions of the news — the deep fake. But a 360-degree video, with the studio, production crew, or other reporters who are all clearly visible, is much harder to re-create. Therefore, 360-degree cameras add a much higher barrier to the integrity of the digital media, one that may be too hard to overcome as humans are actually really good at being bothered when something doesn’t look quite right.

So maybe the emergence of capturing our full experiences for VR is the beginning of the end of the loss of our privacy. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the dawning of a new era where we take responsibility for our actions, knowing there’s the potential for anyone and everyone to see what we’re doing, so we emerge as kinder, gentler neighbors, treating others as we would have them treat us.


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