Virtual Reality and the future of Big Data

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On: October 3, 2021
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Abstract

As we sift through endless amounts of big data from social media, a new form of media is creeping up on us: virtual reality (VR). One of the biggest players in the industry is Oculus, who is owned by Facebook. As VR slowly integrates into society, we must consider how to handle the mass amounts of data that can be collected from these headsets. In Critical Questions for Big Data, danah boyd and Kate Crawford offered several provocations to introduce issues of Big Data. If we frame their considerations for big data from social media to VR, we can better prepare ourselves for dealing with large amounts of data that will come from Facebook and other big players in the VR world.

Image of a user looking through an Oculus headset.
Source: Unsplashed

The new producer of big data

Imagine putting on a heavy pair of eye goggles and with the click of a button you’re fully immersed in a 360 view of a new environment, like the Grand Canyon. You can walk around, wave at people, hike through the canyon or pick up and throw a rock. That’s virtual reality. Virtual realities, not to be confused with augmented realities, are “immersive, completely digital or simulated experiences reliant on encompassing head-mounted displays” (Carter and Egliston 2020, 5).

Watch an example of someone playing a game on a VR headset from a popular TikTok here: https://vm.tiktok.com/ZMRwepETU/.

One of the top producers of virtual reality is Oculus, a Facebook-owned brand of VR headsets. Facebook purchased Oculus in 2014, and it is quickly becoming one of the go-to brands for at-home VR sets. Facebook’s Oculus Quest is one of the best-selling headsets in the industry, and was one of the first VR headsets to not require a PC or console to power it (Robertson, 18). Since the acquisition, there have been ongoing concerns that the company, which doesn’t have the best record on data-sharing ethics, will use the data collection capabilities from VR to intrusively collect and share user data.

Researchers danah boyd and Kate Crawford (2012) have defined “big data” as “a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon that rests on the interplay of technology, analysis, and methodology.” By this definition, we can see that virtual reality is on its way to becoming one of the newest sources of big data –  we have already seen instances of Facebook allowing for data extraction from the Oculus, which has resulted in several projects listed here: https://www.oculus.com/research. As we anticipate the rise of VR, we should prepare for how we will handle the big data that comes from this new form of media. boyd and Crawford have raised several provocations that introduce important conversations about how to proceed with big data in social media, that we can attribute to VR as we think about what to expect in the future. The two most relevant in this case are “just because it is accessible does not make it ethical,” and “limited access to big data creates new digital divides.”

Limited access to big data creates new digital divides

There are many things to consider when approaching conversations about big data. How do we use it? Who gets to use it? How do we protect privacy? Facebook’s reputation for data sharing has been under fire in recent years, most notably after the Cambridge Analytica scandal that brought to light the attempt to sway the results of the 2016 Presidential election in the United States (The World Financial Review, 2020). This leaves us to ask if we should have the same concerns with the Facebook Oculus. boyd and Crawford (674) point out that “large data companies have no responsibility to make their data available, and they have total control over who gets to see them.” We are at a point where VR is so new to the mainstream digital media environment that the only people monitoring data collection are the developers themselves. At this point, the digital divide is solely enforced by the companies that are producing the technology.

Just because it is accessible does not make it ethical

So should we trust them?

danah boyd and Kate Crawford (664) have said that “the market sees Big Data as pure opportunity: marketers use it to target advertising, insurance providers use it to optimize their offerings, and Wall Street bankers use it to read the market.” Facebook has an opportunity right now to build and improve on the Oculus with almost limitless potential to gather unimaginable amounts of data from its users. By looking at Facebook’s “Supplemental Oculus Data Policy” page, among categories of information collected such as cookies, third-party informations and content, Facebook states that they receive information about users’ physical features like their estimated hand size, as well as information about their environment, physical movements, pictures they post, audio created and more (Oculus 2021).

As Jeremy Bailenson, PhD explains about VR data collecting capabilities:

In 2018, commercial systems typically track body movements 90 times per second to display the scene appropriately, and high-end systems record 18 types of movements across the head and hands. Consequently, spending 20 minutes in a VR simulation leaves just under 2 million unique recordings of body language.

(Bailenson 2018, 1)

Bailenson also points out that never before have psychologists had data sets of this magnitude (Bailenson 2018, 1). The difference between this kind of data and the data that we can collect from social media, is that you can control the Tweets you send and the comments you leave on TikTok, but VR tracks body language, human vitals, and nonverbal data – opening big data to entirely new sets of researchers. Would users allow this kind of data collection to take place if they truly knew that it was happening?

How do we move forward?

Knowing that Facebook has the potential to collect huge amounts of data from its Oculus users, it’s important to think about how we should move forward to handle our data in virtual reality spaces, both as users and researchers. During the rise of social media, many people wondered if it was just a trend, or if it would be here to stay (Forbes Agency Council 2021). VR is coming up as one of the newest, most effective approaches to communication possible – we can assume that it is here for good. Because of this, we should prepare ourselves for how to deal with data collection, and have the same conversations about VR that boyd and Crawford have posed about big data in social media.

Bibliography

Bailenson, Jeremy. “Protecting Nonverbal Data Tracked in Virtual Reality.” JAMA Pediatrics 172, no. 10 (October 1, 2018): 905. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2018.1909.

boyd, danah, and Kate Crawford. “CRITICAL QUESTIONS FOR BIG DATA: Provocations for a Cultural, Technological, and Scholarly Phenomenon.” Information, Communication & Society 15, no. 5 (June 2012): 662–79. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2012.678878.

Carter, Marcus, and Ben Egliston. “Ethical Implications of Emerging Mixed Reality Technologies,” 2020. https://doi.org/10.25910/5EE2F9608EC4D.

Egliston, Ben, and Marcus Carter. “Facebook’s Virtual Reality Push Is about Data, Not Gaming.” The Conversation. Accessed October 2, 2021. http://theconversation.com/facebooks-virtual-reality-push-is-about-data-not-gaming-145730.

“Facebook Is Making Oculus’ Worst Feature Unavoidable.” The Verge, August 19, 2020. https://www.theverge.com/2020/8/19/21375118/oculus-facebook-account-login-data-privacy-controversy-developers-competition.

Forbes Agency Council. “Virtual Reality — The Future Of Media Or Just A Passing Trend?” Forbes. Accessed October 2, 2021. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesagencycouncil/2017/05/30/virtual-reality-the-future-of-media-or-just-a-passing-trend/.

“Oculus.” Accessed October 2, 2021. https://www.oculus.com/legal/privacy-policy/?utm_source=rakuten&utm_medium=affiliate&utm_campaign=nOD_rLJHOac-UqD3LVF4M1Yc_ZVQS9E3Jw&MID=43993.

Robertson, Adi. “Facebook Data Concerns Spread to Oculus and VR.” The Verge, April 9, 2018. https://www.theverge.com/2018/4/9/17206650/oculus-facebook-vr-user-data-mining-privacy-policy-advertising.

The World Financial Review. “How Can Personal Data Be Misused?,” November 10, 2020. https://worldfinancialreview.com/how-can-personal-data-be-misused/.

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