Time for a reality check: Decentralised identities in AR and VR

6 Feb 2023

Image: © irishmaster/Stock.adobe.com

Excitement about the immersive, mixed medium capabilities of augmented and virtual realities should be tempered with concern about the potential data and privacy risks of the technology, cautions blockchain expert Li Jun.

Confidence in the future of the metaverse has been shaken this year through massive layoffs in tech and ongoing scepticism in the media. Despite this, Facebook’s parent company Meta has continued venturing into the metaverse, though this move has been referred to as “the biggest flop in tech history”, showing the extent of the cynicism.

We won’t know for some time if the metaverse can actually deliver on everything that has been promised, but in the tech industry, titans such as Apple have focused their attention elsewhere: on augmented reality (AR).

AR promises an immersive mixed medium experience with digital information overlaid on top of the real-world environment.

Apple’s Tim Cook has long believed that AR will have the same impact on society as the smartphone, in the sense that smartphone-enabled users can take everything they love about the internet beyond their desktops. Instead of having to sit at a desk or in a living room to use virtual reality (VR) headsets to access the metaverse, AR enables users to take the most useful elements of VR outside of their homes and apply them to practical, everyday scenarios.

AR promises an immersive mixed medium experience with digital information overlaid on top of the real-world environment. This is something that existing metaverses don’t yet offer.

Regardless of which gains more traction – lightweight AR or fully immersive VR – we need to be conscious of the reams of data that we’ll be handing over to big tech players as the technologies evolve and become part of our daily lives.

If the metaverse is to be one of the key technologies of Web3, it should leverage technological advances in the realms of privacy and security that we’re set to witness in the next generation of the internet.

Where do decentralised identities fit in?

There are a broad range of lucrative use cases for AR that are currently being explored and experimented with. It will come as no surprise that Apple has continued to double down on its plans to dominate the AR industry year after year.

AR glasses could overlay navigation information from Google Maps or Apple Maps, providing wearers with directions as they travel in a foreign city. Using biometrics to verify identity, AR glasses could enable wearers to pay in shops and restaurants. The technology could also allow individuals to be trained on the job, as they work, by being fed visual instructions. Fashion retailers can let customers virtually try on clothes before they are ordered online. The possibilities are endless.

While AR brings many benefits, it leaves us wondering what kind of data can be harvested through this technology. The metaverse in particular raises new questions about user protection and data-driven advertising.

This new world hinging on immersive tech could allow companies to collect new kinds of personal information and even biometric data – think of a company serving you food ads based on what has previously made your pupils dilate. Your emotions and physical reactions to advertisements could be tracked in new ways for marketing purposes. On top of the data big tech players have on how we behave and interact with the web, they’ll now have information on our bodies and physiological state.

What kind of data can be harvested through this technology?

At the end of the day, do we really want centralised entities collecting and managing this data? We have seen in the past how this data has been abused, both intentionally and unintentionally. On countless occasions, online users have watched powerlessly as their personal, sensitive information is taken and monetised, or exposed in data breaches.

With biometric data on eyes and fingerprints used as unique ways to identify people that can’t be changed like passwords, there’s more at stake when this data is abused. On top of that, why should we have to worry about what multibillion-dollar companies are doing with data around our health, physical state and our emotional responses to products and experiences?

Moving towards decentralisation

Blockchain technology must be at the centre of innovation to ensure that, as the world of AR/VR technology evolves around us, our biometric and physical data is protected from falling into the wrong hands. Blockchain can ensure this as there is no central authority, the governance is community-driven and there is no surveillance either.

Decentralised data storage powered by distributed ledger technology (DLT) ensures that data is shared securely across all network participants. In the case of a hack, only one node will be under attack, leaving the rest of the network uncompromised. Blockchain also ensures that all records are immutable, tamper-proof and cannot be modified without permission from the individual. Control over personal data is placed back into the hands of the individual.

Collectively, the future of the metaverse, AR and VR, opens up the opportunity for decentralised identities (DID). DIDs allow you to reclaim autonomous control over your private data. The individual can decide if and when their data is accessible to others. Not only can DIDs remove the need for centralised data storage but also enable password-less logins.

DIDs may also act as a solution to fraud as they are cryptographically associated with a user’s crypto wallet address. Each time the individual enters a different ecosystem, the identity credentials associated with their wallet will be recognised, eliminating the need for re-entering and storing login data across several social media platforms.

The underlying infrastructure on which these technologies are built must be decentralised.

Regardless of whether the metaverse or AR becomes pervasive in modern society, one thing stands true: the underlying infrastructure on which these technologies are built must be decentralised. The implementation of decentralised solutions is necessary to protect our vulnerable data as technology continues to evolve around us.

By Li Jun

Li Jun is the founder of Ontology, a project aimed at bringing privacy and security to Web3 through decentralised identity and data solutions. He is a blockchain solutions architect with 17 years’ experience in IT and fintech.

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.