We can’t overstate it: 2020 changed everything. From how we live and work to how we get groceries and visit the doctor, the coronavirus pandemic forced us to more fully embrace digital solutions across all walks of life. Already a leader in digital transformation, the healthcare sector was no exception. Doctors, nurses, and patients adapted to severe resource constraints and health risks, leaning on emerging technologies to stay ahead of the curve and limit interpersonal engagement. Against this backdrop, the XR Association (XRA) – which represents the broad XR ecosystem including headset manufacturers, technology platforms, component and peripheral companies, internet infrastructure companies, enterprise solution providers, and corporate end users – recently submitted comments to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services focused on how virtual, augmented, and mixed reality solutions can support healthcare practitioners in diagnosing, treating, and monitoring patients from afar. As we contemplate continued adoption of immersive technologies in a post-COVID healthcare system, we must renew our commitment to best practices — adhering to them where they exist and creating them where they don’t.
Balancing innovation and responsible development in healthcare
Fortunately, the XR industry has long maintained a focus on responsible innovation and has built a strong repository of resources that lay the foundation for the industry’s continued growth. XRA has, since its inception, sought to develop best practices for developers on topics such as safety and ergonomics, online safety, and accessibility. These guides equip developers with industry-leading tools to help ensure the experiences they create are safe and accessible across use cases and user abilities.
Beyond guiding responsible XR development, XRA is also focused on crafting policy frameworks that drive responsible XR use. In February, XRA launched a joint initiative with the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, to drive conversation around the policy considerations associated with XR’s continued growth and adoption, such as cybersecurity, privacy, and ethical use. This year-long process — the first coordinated effort to solicit perspectives from a wide range of stakeholders on XR policy and use — aims to preserve the upward trajectory of the technology while keeping responsible innovation at its core.
Of course, responsible innovation doesn’t stop with XRA. Far from it. In all corners of the industry, we’re seeing organizations weigh in and create thoughtful best practices and policy guidelines of their own. Tobii, an industry leader in eye-tracking technology, has implemented a transparency policy that requires applications that use the technology to ask for user acceptance, visualize when data transfer or storage occurs, and explain the benefit of the technology. Another company, Ultraleap, released a best practices guide for designing hand tracking experiences so developers can quickly and efficiently include the technology in their applications. And of course, Facebook has released its own Responsible Innovation Principles that center the work of Facebook Reality Labs on transparency and giving users control over their immersive experiences. As we consider increased uptake of XR technology in the healthcare sector, industry commitments to responsible data stewardship (Principle 4: Put People First) and inclusive design (Principle 3: Consider Everyone) take on paramount importance. By taking these steps publicly, rather than solely establishing internal processes, these companies are helping to set the industry standard for what it means to responsibly innovate.
As the XR industry develops its own guiding principles, standards organizations are also getting involved, developing standards in systems architecture and infrastructure to support XR deployments. Only in the last two years has the XR industry seen the rise of new standards projects that address product health and safety in this same space. Underwriters Laboratories launched its STP8400 project in late 2019 to address safety for VR/AR/MR equipment. In the fall of 2020, ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 24, at the urging of the British Standards Institute, opened a new working group with a broad scope addressing health, safety, security, and usability of AR and VR technology. IEEE, also seeing a need in the industry, opened a new standards project in December 2020 to address “Head Mounted Display Based Virtual Reality Sickness Reduction.” This flurry of activity requires industry input in order to ensure that developers and manufacturers are innovating and advancing the breadth and impact of immersive tech while we operate on a common set of health, safety, and usability principles.
As we envision a future of healthcare that fully embraces the potential of XR, it’s more important than ever that we ensure our innovations are responsibly developed and applied. Some of our most sensitive and important data is held by healthcare providers. We already see revolutionary XR applications in the medical training and education space, and we are sure to see increasing XR treatment options. Just recently, I spoke at the International Consumer Product Health and Safety Organization’s (ICPHSO) annual conference about how immersive technology can help alleviate isolation among the elderly and other populations, as well as promote solutions in mental, cognitive, and physical health. We highlighted the power of XR to revolutionize how people connect in ways we could not have imagined and ultimately improve health outcomes. But we cannot lead in this fashion without commitment and action on responsible development and innovation. By centering responsible innovation and the creation of ethical frameworks around this technology, we can ensure it is inclusive of all people and protects the most vulnerable in our society.