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vSafety: How online dangers will transpose into VR

Whatever technology students have been using in classrooms over the last several years, one thing that has remained integral within digital education is esafety. Unfortunately, we live in dangerous times and predators look to exploit the lack of awareness many children have about such dangers. The internet has become the largest city in the world and yet often our children wander its digital streets unaccompanied. There are many aspects to safety that educators and parents must now ensure children are aware of, from online grooming to phishing scams to viruses and more.

So how will these dangers transpose to the virtual worlds that loom in the imminent future? Social VR is on the rise. It’s already here in the form of platforms like VR Chat and now Facebook Spaces but has not yet reached the masses and their children. It will though and sooner than you may think. Virtual reality metaverses that bring to life the sci-fi dreams of The Matrix or Ready Player One will become common over the next five years and will allow people to socialise, educate, build and so much more. They will have currencies and economies. They will connect people from all over the world in a way that traditional social networks and even video chat platforms never could. But they will also offer unscrupulous, malicious people new ways to target those that are ignorant or uneducated about potential dangers.

Children are inherently vulnerable. Today they are labelled “digital natives” because they grew up in a world of technology, with iPads in their hands but just because I child knows how to use a computer, it does not mean that they know how to use it safely or how to recognise a possible threat.

I want to highlight three key elements of VR that may well pose such a threat to children in the near future:

The Avatar Illusion

One of the cornerstones of esafety is teaching children that people they meet online are not always who they may claim to be. Social VR experiences present a new, potentially more dangerous twist on this problem. Children, teenagers in particular, could well be more vulnerable to digital predators within VR. The level of immersion and the use of customisable, full body avatars means that a child could easily be tempted to believe that they are socialising with someone who is in fact very different in real life. The desire to believe that the avatar is the reality is magnified by the immersive nature of full VR experiences.

Let me share an example – though fortunately one without a predatory nature. This picture shows myself and David Whelan (CEO of Immersive VR Education) inside Engage:

I’ve met Dave inside Engage several times but never in person nor even via Skype or any other video chat platform. On July 11th I hosted the #CPDinVR panel discussion and at the last minute one of the panellists had to drop out. Dave offered to step in and I realised that I needed to edit my slidedeck (which was shown on the screen behind the panel) as the first few slides introduced each panellist with a photo and their Twitter handle etc. So I jumped online and looked for a photo of Dave. I ended up cross-referencing multiple images as he did not look at all as I expected. Having only ever “met” Dave inside VR, in my mind Dave looked like the avatar he always used.

Now take that example but let’s say that I met a stunningly attractive woman in VR. How easy would it be for me to believe that she really looked like her avatar? The simple fact is that I would want to believe it. Now imagine how much more powerful that experience would be to a fourteen year old boy and how easy I might be to get him to divulge private, personal information.

The Invisible Currency

Social VR experiences will inevitably be intertwined with cryptocurrencies. Bitcoin or other altcoins will be used within VR worlds to buy and sell virtual land, goods and services. These new digital currencies will be unfamiliar and many will struggle to comprehend their inherent value in the real world.

As an example - I’m sure many of you have heard of Bitcoin, the oldest, most established form of digital currency (it’s 8 years since it launched.) If I was to offer you just ONE bitcoin., how much do you think it would be worth? Have a guess. A single unit of this new currency. The answer is below the image…

On July 31st 2017:

1 Bitcoin = £2074 or $ 2722

Surprised? I was. Exchange rates can catch you off guard like that and to children they can be quite foreign concepts (no pun intended.)

Over the last five years, I have had various instances where parents have lamented tales of students accessing the iTunes Store and charging hundreds of dollars to their credit cards. Once you factor in the change of currency and unfamiliarity with this new digital coinage, there is an increased likelihood that youngsters could be lured into spending what they think is very little, very quickly… only to find out that in real money, the costs are much greater.

And oh how the trinkets and baubles will sparkle before them in VR, tempting them to part ways with their (your) money. Clothes for avatars, digital pets, an extra room on their VR house – it’s in-app purchases magnified to the nth degree. Fine for the wary digital citizen, dangerous for the impulsive teenager, desperate to meet new social expectations. Inevitably people will try to exploit this desire to maximise and maintain standing inside VR worlds. Offers to bypass systems, earn extra currency or get free items will shade the market will likely come wrapped with hidden hazards like malware.

Hidden by Headsets

Whether in class or at home, it is crucial to monitor what kids are accessing online. For a teacher this could simply entail good classroom management and awareness of student activities when using digital devices. For a parent it could mean only permitting a child to use devices in a shared space with supervision. It could also entail the use of specific applications that limit what children can access, allow access to their screen or provide records of usage.

The inherent problem with VR is that the user is immersed in the experience which is accessed via a headset. Other people could be in the same physical space and not know the nature of the content that the child is accessing. As menu interfaces are also virtual, the user could potentially switch to a different virtual space or experience without alerting others. This heightened feeling of privacy is real danger as youngsters will at will be likely that youngsters are tempted to access inappropriate content more readily. Studies have already shown that youngsters will do and say things in the digital world that they would not in the real world as they feel safe, hidden behind their screen. VR offers another layer of privacy – one where mum, dad or teacher may not be able to see what you are looking at even if they are stood right behind you.

Thinking Ahead

Obviously I am a huge fan of VR and feel that it will become more and more integral in education. I wrote this piece to shed some light on the potential risks that will evolve as VR evolves - just as they have with all form of connected technology since the birth of the internet. I am not in any way damning VR but merely stressing the need for educators (and parents) to be thinking ahead. A new level of communication and connected experiences is on the horizon and we need to prepare and enlighten our children so that they enter virtual spaces with caution and clarity.

Internet safety and digital citizenship programmes will adjust. New content will naturally evolve that tackles these issues just as current content tackles the online equivalents. We can be proactive though and begin to introduce these concepts now. For example -

  • Look at Bitcoin for a Business Studies project or cover exchange rates in Maths.

  • Build avatars in ICT lessons and discuss the implications of assuming a different digital form.

  • Teach students the importance of honesty and integrity when using digital devices.

  • Introduce parents to the concept of VR and both the enormous positives it offers students and some of the potential risks.

Whatever we can do now, it will all help raise awareness and build a positive digital future for the next generation.

#VR #esafety #theory

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