29 June 2023

How we’re responding to renewed interest in immersive technologies

New immersive technologies are breaking down the barriers between the virtual and the real worlds. Emma Leech from Ofcom’s Strategy and Policy team and Dev Patel from the Trust and Safety Technology team look at how these technologies could transform the way we communicate with each other and use online services, and set out how Ofcom is responding to these changes.

Apple and Meta have both launched new mixed reality headsets in recent weeks, sparking renewed interest in immersive technologies. Apple says its new Vision Pro headset will focus on what it calls ‘spatial computing’ which allows people to use apps, view content or interact with others in full or partial virtual environments, over what it calls an ‘infinite canvas’. Meta, meanwhile, said its new Quest 3 headset would ‘seamlessly blend your physical world with the virtual one’.

Even as funding and interest flow towards generative AI, the Apple and Meta announcements have sparked fresh interest in immersive technologies. So, it’s important to consider the impact they might have on the way we communicate with each other.

Immersive technologies can encompass a range of different options.

  • Mixed reality: blends physical and virtual worlds to produce new environments where physical and digital objects co-exist and interact in real-time.
  • Augmented reality: overlays digital content, which could include a combination of sound, video, text, and graphics, onto a real-world environment using a headset or a device with a camera, such as a mobile phone.
  • Virtual reality: use of a headset to access a virtual experience, which could be digitally created or a captured 360° photo or video.
  • Haptics: immersive technologies also include haptics which give the sensation of touch in virtual environments.

If these technologies take off, they could transform the way we use online services for both work and pleasure. For instance, the 38% of UK adults who play games online usually do so using non-immersive technologies such as PCs, smartphones and gaming consoles. But increasingly, gaming is taking place using immersive technologies: 42% of 13- to 64-year-old gamers have played virtual reality games using a headset.

Interaction in a virtual world might look different compared to ‘traditional’ social media

There has been a lot of discussion about whether we might all be soon interacting in a fully interconnected and immersive metaverse. However, instead of focusing on a specific vision of the metaverse, we have grounded our work in understanding how people currently use virtual worlds at in areas such as gaming using non-immersive technologies.  Our recently published Interactive Services Model looks in detail at the typical user journey through an online gaming experience. And we want to understand how people’s use of virtual worlds might develop in the future, especially if the use of immersive technologies becomes more popular.

The way we interact with each other in virtual worlds might be very different to how we communicate through ‘traditional’ social media platforms. Interaction in these virtual worlds would be much more like in real life. It could happen in real time, meaning some content could be ephemeral with no public record of events and interactions. Life in these virtual worlds would often be open-ended and non-linear, with users having huge freedom to explore and construct new types of experiences.

‘Content’ in virtual worlds could also look different. In traditional social media, we typically think of text, pictures and short videos. In virtual worlds, this may be further complicated with the addition of real-time speech and the creation and manipulation of digital content, such as avatars, objects, and the virtual environments themselves. This could enable users to find new ways to express themselves and interact with each other.

There are a number of ways this could play out, but it’s important we understand it

There is no one singular version of how our online interactions might look in the future and how immersive these experiences might be. However, virtual worlds already play an important role in lots of people’s lives and, in the future, we could see them becoming increasingly complex, immersive and interconnected. As and when they do so, various questions could arise, including:

  • How might communications networks need to evolve to handle the demands of immersive technologies?
  • What forms will content take, who will create it, and how might it be discovered and used?
  • How will competition develop in the markets for products, technologies and use-cases?

As the UK’s communications regulator, Ofcom is interested in how virtual worlds might change the way we interact with each other online, so we’re tracking their development. Many of the services offered using them could fall within the scope of the Online Safety Bill, and we are working with our partners in the Digital Regulation Co-operation Forum to better understand the wider implications.

At Ofcom, it is important that we understand how the line between real and virtual can be blurred, all the way from Minecraft to the metaverse, as we keep track of the UK’s media lives.