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Return to reality

An exploration of immersive technologies

At the Ada Lovelace Institute, we use the term ‘immersive technologies’ – also known as ‘extended reality’ or ‘XR’ technologies. Definitions of XR and immersive technologies are similar and sometimes overlapping. We have chosen to use ‘immersive technologies’ as the core term to describe these technologies. We use the term ‘XR’ in quoted material, and where it is necessary for a particular explanation.

Project Background

The ‘metaverse’, which gained widespread attention through the rebranding of Facebook to Meta in 2021, was presented as the next inevitable technological leap: a shift from screen-based human-computer interaction to immersive engagement within virtual environments.

Metaverses (or immersive virtual worlds) are one type of technology making up immersive technologies: technologies that change user perceptions or adjust user environments to trigger immersive experiences,  where users experience some loss of awareness or dissociation from the physical world.

Beyond immersive virtual worlds such as Meta’s Metaverse, other forms of immersive technologies include virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) technologies. These rely on varied combinations of hardware devices and software programs to generate diverse types of immersive experiences and have steadily diffused across sectors, ranging from AR features on vehicles, VR gaming platforms (e.g. Oculus or PlayStation VR) to education and healthcare.

Besides Meta, Apple and Microsoft have also invested heavily in immersive technologies. More than £120 billion was invested in metaverse technologies in the first six months of 2022, driven in part by Microsoft’s acquisition of game developer Activision Blizzard. Apple increased the integration of augmented reality in their products ahead of the Apple Vision Pro headset’s release in 2024.

The hype around immersive technologies during this time raised questions for regulators and policymakers about their governance. There was – and continues to be – a lack of common vocabulary or grounded understanding of their potential technical, legal and societal implications. However, despite these emerging concerns, the slower-than-expected adoption of immersive technologies like Meta’s metaverse has contributed to a redirection of regulatory focus to AI foundation models such as Open AI’s GPT-4, which have received greater attention from developers and the public.

As questions of governance remain open, immersive technologies will continue to be developed without the legal and regulatory infrastructure necessary to ensure they are developed and deployed safely –  driven by technological possibility rather than societal need.

This project aims to address the urgent need for resources to support policymakers in developing approaches to the governance of immersive technologies that ensure the protection of communities impacted by them.

Project overview

The main outputs of this work will be:

  • An immersive technologies explainer which will introduce key concepts and definitions, and highlight the main actors, domains and use cases. It will also provide an overview of the immersive technologies ‘lifecycle’.
  • A research report presenting case studies of immersive technology applications, including corresponding impact assessments. As part of this work we will work with impacted communities and experts to understand the potential risks, harms and benefits. This will inform recommended approaches to regulating current and emerging immersive technologies.

Image credit: Krisada tepkulmanont