Persuasion Machines is a compelling experience at the Sundance Film Festival which grapples with the issue of data privacy in XR. The project builds upon the Netflix documentary, The Great Hack, pushing it into a VR environment that is deeply unsettling.
Data Privacy in XR
Here’s what the experience sets out to do.:
Enter a smart living room that asks the question: are we in control of these machines or are they in control of us? The filmmakers of The Great Hack (2019 Sundance Film Festival) use mixed reality and surveillance technologies to bring to life the invisible world of data. Audiences will experience how smart devices harvest data from our devices and how this data is then used to control us and persuade us. (Festival Program)
You begin Persuasion Machines by stepping into a room with a grid projected on the floor. Once your photo is taken and you’re fitted to a VR headset, you find yourself in a virtual living room. It’s a compelling environment, and you’re with two other people whose avatars are visible to you. As CNet put it, “It’s picture-perfect for Airbnb.”
Actually, you could take this a step further. It’s a picture-perfect world of our future social VR spaces. Even though you can’t interact with the other avatars, it feels like a social network in a virtual world. And just as our current social networks siphon off our data and activities for their own purposes, you can imagine this new social VR world doing the same. Except that it will also capture the position and movements of our bodies and the gaze of our eyes.
After wandering around for a while, you have to accept a Terms of Service agreement while simultaneously being cautioned against do it by another voice. Soon, a portal appears and you step into a visualization of the data encompassing your life. When you return to the room, everything in it has disintegrated into data.
Our Privacy in Virtual Environments
As the artists Karim Amer and Güvenç Özel show, we’ve already sold our privacy in our current social media world. Every device in our hands or on our counters holds a kind of Faustian bargain. We gain connectivity and access while giving up our identity to corporate entities.
As the narrator says at one point,
As you search Google, Google is searching you.
As the experience ends, you’re taken to Times Square where your data is completely public and you’re nothing more than than a blip in a massive sea of information.
When you take off the headset, you have a chance to linger at a detox area that CNet describes.
. . . after the VR ends and you take off your headset, Persuasion Machines offers a Data Detox Kit from Mozilla and Tactical Tech, a Berlin-based organization. They’re essentially how-to materials for data privacy 101, like how turn down the faucet of data on your smartphone.
The real question is: is that enough? How usable are our phones if we’ve turned down the faucet. It’s already an acknowledgment that we can’t shut it off completely. But the deeper question in Persuasive Machines – whether intended or not – is what happens as we enter an XR saturated world? XR will grab data not from what we post and share but from our lived virtual experience. Will our privacy disappear completely?
Up to now, we haven’t had to deal with data privacy in XR. But that’s beginning to change as Facebook moves to incorporate Facebook Friends into the Oculus platform. Future developments like the Octi contact lenses could turn the privacy question into a nightmare where your every glance in tracked and analyzed by advertisers.
Persuasive Machines is a compelling VR experience that anyone working in XR needs to see.
Emory Craig is a writer, speaker, and VR consultant with extensive experience in art, new media, and higher education. He speaks at global conferences on innovation, education, and ethical technology in the future. He has published widely and worked with the US Agency for International Development, the United Nations, and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Living at the intersection of learning, games, and immersive storytelling, he is fascinated by AI-based avatars, digital twins, and the ethical implications of blurring the boundaries between the real and the virtual.