Introducing the XR Safety Initiative to the VRforHealth Community

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An Interview by VRforHealth with Valentino Megale, PhD, start-up founder and XRSI advisor.

XR Safety Initiative (XRSI), headquartered in the US, is a worldwide not-for-profit organization that promotes privacy, security, and ethics in the immersive environments including Virtual Reality. Their mission is “to help build safe and inclusive experiences” by discovering novel cybersecurity, privacy, and ethical risks and proposing potential solutions to mitigate them.”

VRforHealth, as our visitors know, seeks to educate healthcare stakeholders about the wellness and therapeutic uses of virtual reality and facilitate access to validated Virtual Reality applications and devices.

In a first collaboration between the two organizations, VRforHealth co-founder Denise Silber interviewed Valentino Megale, in his role as an advisor to XRSI.

DS: You were an academic researcher in neuropharmacology before creating a VR solutions company. Can you help us understand the decisions you made along the way?
VM: Around ten years ago, as a researcher, I was developing and exploring chemical compounds to be tested for new potential applications in healthcare. In addition to my core lab work and my subsequent PhD, I was also actively involved in initiatives focused on tech solutions in medicine and social impact. I found myself in a dynamic community of innovators and specialists with diverse professional backgrounds. Together with my closest colleagues, we started exploring the concept of using digital tools to support the quality of life of hospitalized patients, through alternatives to the administration of pharmacological substances. Immersive technologies and especially virtual reality, appeared to have huge potential, validated by decades of research and to be more accessible than in previous years. Tech and healthcare were converging faster and faster, and we decided to contribute our vision by launching our startup, Softcare Studios. Today, we are present in 15+ hospitals supporting pediatric patients with our product TOMMI, focused on virtual sedation and pain management, and we’re expanding towards adult and elder patients, also thanks to strategic partnerships with pharma companies such as Novartis.

How did you come to engage with XRSI?
Since we try to make technology valuable for patients and medical specialists, safety is a key element. Engaging with the global XR community, I naturally reached out to the XRSI initiative, and joined. the meaningful conversation promoted by its community. This started at the end of 2020, as a knowledge-sharing exercise between my work in hospitals and XRSI’s mission focused on safety, privacy and ethics in XR. I quickly understood that XRSI was the right organization to join so that I could take my work in immersive technologies to a new level of impact. Contributing to XRSI enabled us to not only provide impactful solutions to patients, but to also ensure that our work would flourish in an innovation landscape where the rights of the individual are safeguarded.

What activity have you been leading for this organization and how does it relate to your work in the deployment of VR for pediatric indications?
In 2021, I joined the Medical XR Council as an advisor, supporting its activities to promote safer applications of XR solutions in the medical field. Joining the team became a great opportunity to share insights with global stakeholders, in very diverse health systems around the world and to raise awareness of state of the art XR risks and challenges connected with this field.

In 2022, I also joined the Child Safety Initiative as a Lead, fully embracing its mission to spread awareness of the risks of XR tech when used by young individuals and to promote the development of guidelines to support safer virtual worlds for younger generations. To achieve this goal, we’re engaging with global policymakers and stakeholders, focusing on the regulatory context in which innovation occurs, instead of on the regulation of the final products. If the context is safety-oriented, the resulting products will be as well. Our goal is to establish safety and privacy as a baseline, not as a follow up to innovation.

What is the greatest progress that XRSI has made in your areas of interest ?
The ongoing research at XRSI is not limited to the public conversation. The Initiative is oriented towards very pragmatic deliverables. The launch of the Privacy and Safety Framework (PSF) represented a key milestone, clarifying how to approach the safety and privacy topics around XR and related technologies. The team is working hard to convert the XRSI’s growing knowledge into resources that can inspire and guide responsible innovation in the field of immersive technologies and trigger pro-active reflections on the dangers and issues that we experience with online platforms and social networks.

XR offers entire new opportunities for data collection and extend the attack surface for malicious players, not only in terms of the amount of collected data, but especially in its diversity and complexity. Behavioral, social, biometric information can be all gathered through the same device, and processed in relation to the virtual context in which the individual is immersed, exponentially increasing our ability to extract meaning. Privacy of users can be violated from a wider range of perspectives and reused in ways that sometimes we still need to figure out how to define. The resulting grey area is reflected in wide regulatory gaps, allowing for real and potential breaches to happen without available countermeasures to appeal to.

The double nature of XR tech, consisting at the same time of content medium and sensors, makes them cognitive technologies with significant potential for persuasion and manipulation. XR tech has meaningful impact when used as therapeutic tools, but it generates safety concerns when used under poor ethical and safety standards. With the growing adoption of immersive technologies by the general population, more young people and children are experiencing immersive content with no safety controls to limit or prevent virtual abuse and bullying, exposure to age inappropriate content, unwanted social connections.

To address similar challenges, the XRSI is committed to

  • the development of research-based frameworks to inform key stakeholders — from content providers to tech companies to governments and end users — on the expected and potential risks of XR technologies,
  • the promotion of safety and privacy controls inspiring local and global regulation to stay up to date with the available technology.

This is a necessary activity to inspire a real-world shift from XR tech marketed as addiction technologies, as per many online services today, to empowering and augmenting tools for self-expression, connection and communication.

What’s coming up in the future?
With the Child Safety Initiative, our goal is to invest in research and work to develop a safety and privacy framework for young individuals, inspired by the PSF and adapted to safeguard the best interests of children as defined by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. That will be an exciting process, leading to the establishment of a reference for child safety in VR and the future metaverse, that is open and flexible enough to adapt continuously to the feedback from our global network.

We don’t want to reinvent the wheel regarding online safety. There is already great work done by initiatives such as Australia’s eSafety Commissioner and UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office. What we think is needed is to extend the existing online guidelines and regulatory oversight to virtual worlds, and also to take the lead on emerging threats that require a new set of countermeasures, based on a deep knowledge of XR tech and its increasing convergence with other key technology such as AI, blockchain and cloud computing.

In addition, XRSI is expanding beyond the US. The launch of XRSI Europe is expected to engage the EU community and bring knowledge of the risks and potential of XR to the attention of product designers, researchers, governments, and user communities. The EU brings great diversity in terms of cultures, regulations and approaches to innovation, and we see this as enabling us to access diverse networks of researchers and expers, promoting the awareness and topic cohesion necessary to create informed and responsible innovation in Europe.

Denise Silber