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Eye-Tracking, Metaverse, and Health Crisis with Virtual Addiction

Privacy Concerns with Eye-Tracking Technology

Reportedly, Apple has completed key production tests for its AR and VR headset that could debut by the end of this year. It is one of many upcoming headsets with eye-tracking technology amid the rise of Metaverse (1).

While this tech aims to make the Metaverse more interactive for users, privacy advocates are concerned about its immersion. They argue that this tech can lead to highly invasive personal data collection if left unregulated.

AR/VR headset
Concept render based on purported leaked information by Ian Zelbo, Source: Macrumors

Sony’s Playstation VR2, Apple’s VR headset, and Meta’s Project Cambria are all expected to include eye-tracking (2, 3).

This tech will allow Metaverse apps to track which areas to focus on and render in more detail based on where a user looks. Also, it would allow avatars to make eye contact and use their gaze as a controller. This means it’ll allow headsets to ditch handheld controllers, and we can even expect it to lead to an always-on headset.

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A Better Metaverse

According to Anand Srivasta, CEO of Tobii (4), among the largest manufacturers of eye-tracking components for assistive technologies, AR and VR, and PCs, eye tracking is the key stepping stone for where Metaverse and headsets need to go next.

Your eyes aren’t capable of perceiving all of the detail you believe they are. The fovea, located in the center of the eye, bounces about to focus on certain details, while the rest of the world is seen peripherally, as though in reduced resolution.

In eye-tracking VR, a technique known as foveated rendering can be used to boost graphics processing in the little area your fovea is focused on while making the rest lower-res (5). It saves computing power and works remarkably well. It’ll be used in the next generation of VR headsets to create higher-resolution visuals on compact headsets with limited battery life.

“If you think about 5G advent, the next steps beyond foveated rendering include things like foveated transport. It will allow you to reduce what you render, but you could reduce the quality of parts of your image that you won’t be going to see on that pipe on the 5G network,” Srivatsa says, adding that this will help shrink the headsets down to the real goal of glasses-sized techs.”

Notably, Qualcomm has been working on similar technology, promising lighter-weight, phone-connected spectacles (6).

Being a cartoon avatar in a virtual reality metaverse world is a forced tradeoff at present, providing increased immersion in some areas while sacrificing direct eye contact. It’s easy to become irritated with it. Facebook has stated that its next-generation VR gear, which may release later this year, will incorporate eye and face tracking for avatars, allowing avatars to look eye to eye. Will that be more unsettling or better?

According to Srivatsa, “there are two points to consider. One method is to trick your senses into believing that this is genuine and that you want to spend time there. The second step is to engage in real-life interaction that allows you to fully immerse yourself and not feel as if you’re doing something strange — because you still have the other aspects of the discomfort, such as wearing a headset.”

“But if we can achieve excellent visual fidelity and realistic contact, you might be able to forgive the fact that, yes, I do have something on my head,” he added.

Srivatsa admits that Tobii, as a maker of eye-tracking technology, isn’t responsible for creating social experiences; that’s something that businesses like Meta, Sony, and Apple will have to deal with.

However, he believes there is potential to use eye contact to focus on talks and sounds, which would benefit games, larger-scale social spaces, and virtual office apps. Srivatsa envisions a situation in which staring at a person can focus sounds and even drown out other people’s discussions.

“I believe it has the potential to be extremely powerful in enabling the kinds of relationships we might not expect, where digital can even transcend what you can do in physical in certain respects,” he says.

But, at the same time, eye tracking and face tracking have created severe privacy issues about how companies handle an ever-increasing amount of user data. These issues have always existed for smartwatches, smart speakers, video doorbells, and numerous smartphone apps, but VR and AR would be venturing into uncharted areas with eye-tracking.

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An Invasive Metaverse

Last year, researchers in Germany discovered that physical characteristics and eye movements could reveal a wealth of personal information, including age, gender, health concerns, drug usage, and even personality type (7).

Companies may also utilize a heat map to track users’ gazes to sell adverts. For instance, MoviePass recently began tracking customers’ eye movements to verify that they watch advertising on the app.

While Apple prioritizes user privacy in its technological development, Meta intends for Project Cambria’s primary source of revenue to be the selling of advertisements and digital goods (8).

We can expect regulators to create new guidelines on personal data gathering that incorporate eye-tracking data because of these concerns.

Srivatsa is aware of the concerns but does not have definitive answers. “This is essential to us. We stood firm on this issue, believing that people must have control over their data.” Srivatsa distinguishes between two types of eye-tracking data.

The first, in which eye control is essentially employed as a mouse, is less troubling. “That information isn’t saved; it’s simply used to drive a certain interaction. We see a very little impact in terms of stored data on the user for these types of things.”

The bigger uncertainty is the other level, which could involve recording “heat maps” of where people are looking or collecting photographs of people’s eyes.

“We believe that this can be seen as highly intrusive.”

We have a policy regarding data disclosure. “The goal is to give people control over their data and to ensure that they understand where their data is used and if it is being stored,” Srivatsa explained.

“We anticipate our consumers abiding by our data disclosure policy. So, if they’re storing eye-tracking data, they’ll need to acquire the user’s permission and explain what they will do with it. And, once again, this is in the spirit of transparency by allowing consumers to opt-in.”

Tobii, according to Srivatsa, expects firms to use their technology properly and ethically. The more difficult part will be enforcing it. Transparency about data use, according to Srivatsa, is the solution. I inquire about safe local data storage, but this isn’t required as part of Tobii’s technology.

That implies that businesses will be allowed to decide how to use eye-tracking technology. It also implies that keeping an eye on how Meta and others incorporate data will be an important element of how the next wave of VR and AR unfolds.

While Meta has already begun changing its data privacy language in preparation for future AR glasses, we don’t know if those policies will be altered or upheld. However, it’s something that will very certainly be present in your next VR headset.

However, as the Metaverse grows, there is another looming concern of “virtual addition.”

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The Virtual Health Crisis

Video game addiction has been formally identified as an illness (9). Although studies differ in defining addiction, they all agree that it affects around 3% of all gamers. Virtual addiction could become big health and economic concern in the next five years as digital worlds permeate our daily lives.

With the expansion of the Metaverse, virtual reality could go beyond gaming to become a key hub for work, community, and commerce, with more immersive experiences (10).

metaverse evolution
Source: JPMorgan

Meta and Microsoft have already built multibillion-dollar virtual worlds in which businesses such as Nike, Forever 21, and Chipotle host virtual stores to supplement their real-world profits. Virtual products are currently worth $54 billion per year, and the worldwide gaming sector is anticipated to reach $314 billion by 2027 (11, 12).

According to JPMorgan Chase, all of this may result in a $1 trillion annual revenue opportunity (13).

However, experts fear that games with no defined end and multiplayer functionality can lead to addictive behavior (14). And this next generation of AR and VR headsets will be able to collect more data on players’ implicit reactions and learn the “perfect buttons to push” to manipulate them and induce a dopamine surge.

Addiction to video games is a debatable topic.

Previously the subject of terrifying stories about parents playing for days while their children went hungry (15), there is now skepticism that it is even a problem. When the WHO added gaming disorder to its Worldwide Classification of Diseases — practically an international medical bible — in 2018 (16), critics claimed that excessive gaming was a sign of bigger problems.

The scientific nuances will almost certainly continue to be contested, but some people require assistance in reducing their gaming time. A therapist in Chicago who specializes in adolescent game-related concerns, Andrew Fishman, sees gaming as an effective technique to cope with problems and a possible source of problems if taken too far (17).

Gaming, in essence, provides a sense of control.

According to research published in 2021 by the University of Buffalo (18), games provide players “a deeper sense of ownership of the virtual environment than other technology, such as watching YouTube. And games are notorious for rewarding your time; if you put in a specific number of hours, you will achieve a certain number of achievements.

Read Also: Gaming: A $300 Billion Business Opportunity

The Issue with FOMO, Attention, and Addiction

Most companies create their platforms in such a way that more players become addicted.

“Every big gaming business now hires behavioral psychologists to ensure that their games are as interesting as possible and that they utilize as many psychological tricks as possible to keep players playing,” Fishman says.

According to him, one of the most noticeable is the “season pass,” which is an optional cost paid every few months to engage in a game’s most recent activities and get the most recent rewards. “This system is set up to take advantage of our natural fear of missing out — what 13-year-old wants to hear their peers bragging about a new event they missed because they didn’t pay for the new season?”

“This ‘weaponized FOMO,'” Fishman claims, “naturally leads to addictive behaviors.” It makes sense to stay up a bit later or forgo a homework project to take part in the event that may never happen again.”

Want to learn more about the attention economy? Here’s an interesting report we found while researching for this piece.

While gaming increases a person’s ability to focus on tasks and sharpens their visuospatial skills, studies show that it also causes functional and structural alterations in the neural reward system (19). Basically, once a game has rewarded you, you’ll want more.

That’s why, according to the aforementioned University of Buffalo study’s authors, gamers who are concerned about addiction can try playing games with easier or even harder difficulties: “…since accomplishment motivation is one of the most important predictors of online gaming addiction, and because easy modes are not competitive and hard modes are difficult to master, they lower the chances of gamers becoming addicted.”

Notably, by next year, the number of gamers in the world will have surpassed three billion. If 3% of gamers develop an addiction, that implies 90 million people might be affected.

According to the current economic costs of video game addiction in South Korea, this trend might cost the world economy 284 billion USD per year (20).