RightsCon 2021 Opening Remarks

I’ve worked for some really big companies to help define their AR & VR programs early on. Skepticism of powerful players is always wise.

But it really makes a difference when a company’s core incentives, their income and KPI, are aligned with the needs of consumers, long-term.

I avoid companies whose business models serve other masters. Even assuming best intentions, as Upton Sinclair said: “It’s difficult to get a person to understand something when their salary depends on them not understanding it.”

Ad-driven companies work, figuratively, like Casinos, although ad buys are really betting on us. These companies don’t need or want “mind control rays.”

The House wins because the playing field is imperceptibly tilted in their favor. They just need us to keep playing long enough for the money to flow. XR can tilt the field even more and make the experiences even more psychologically addictive.

With VR, you’re fully immersed in a 3D virtual environment. Remarkably, the environment can be changed without you noticing, whenever you blink or move your eyes. Sensors can record your reactions to outside stimuli, including covert experiments.

With AR, like Facebook’s Aria glasses, you always see the real world. Aria doesn’t even have a display at this point. Still, this kind of system can learn from your reactions to real people, places and things through eye tracking, world-facing cameras, microphones and more.

With AR, VR or hybrids, the data is invaluable — a digital clone of you and your behaviors. With this, malignant algorithms can learn how to trigger you, how to play to your emotions to bypass your rational defenses.

A company with sufficient users (and fewer controls) might add data from people you trust — personal heroes, friends and family — to help convince you of whatever the highest bidder is selling.

Even though we clearly have a right to privacy and agency, contracts of adhesion undermine these rights with what I’d call non-informed involuntary consent.

Let’s jump forward five years virtually. This is grounded in actual research with many otherwise positive uses.

Imagine you’re in VR and it’s actually good, not at all uncomfortable.

You’re virtually walking down some city street. The system has quietly edited the cars nearby, swapping models and colors over time without you noticing the changes.

However, the system just tested one car that really caught your eye. It made your pupils dilate with excitement, your heart beat faster, your skin flush and change resistance.

Alas, this car is way too expensive and a bit impractical. The system detects your frown and sad exhale. Your deflation is noted.

At least 90 seconds later, you see that same car virtually drive by, right in front of you. It’s not an ad. It’s an experience, indistinguishable from the rest.

The car’s driver looks remarkably like your best friend. The passenger resembles your secret crush, which the system learned from tracking your eyes, pulse and breathing in real-life encounters and via your social media habits. The system may guess your real feelings before you do, the way credit card companies can predict divorces.

You really need that car. You put the thought aside and listen to some music. Several songs today feature cars.

You open your banking app to verify your poverty. A sidebar suggests that if you pay just $399/month indefinitely, now is a great time to finance. Your dream car shows up as an example of what you can afford.

You press the button, tingling. Your excitement is noted.

The scenario is fictional today, but give it five years, depending on how fast we adopt XR and digital twins. I actually patented this idea in 2010, so maybe that’ll offer some small protection for a few more years.

What are we to do when a big company’s financial goals are not aligned to our collective best interests?

Do we break them up into a dozen smaller copies?

Competitive market forces fail when “apparently free” business models can undercut the more pro-social ones. By apparently free, I mean we pay for it without knowing.

Could we have reformed Casinos by establishing a gambler’s bill of rights?

It’s a necessary first step, but it’s only a start.

We know that active regulation is often the only thing that works. And we still have a few years runway to persuade people.

I worry that our reluctance to kick the golden goose of on-line advertising — which gives us an endless Virtual Vegas-style buffet — means we may already be addicted. ScreenTime, for example, does nothing to curb my Twitter use.

Step one of our self-help program is admitting that we are vulnerable and also quite thoroughly hooked.