Avatars, VR and Embodied Selves: Balancing Privacy Protection with Connection

Danaë Stanton Fraser, Adam Joinson, Alicia Cork – University of Bath

Exploring users experiences and concepts of privacy and online harms with respect to VR avatars.

The ways in which social behaviour and self-presentation is experienced online is changing. While avatars have been a staple of online presentation since the late 1990s, recent advances in motion detection, augmented reality, camera technology and processor capacity have enabled a future where how we choose to represent ourselves online is an amalgam of the real, embodied self and the virtually created (and curated). The old flat 2D avatar that acted as a static representation of the self has been replaced by dynamic representations (e.g. Apple’s Memoji) that combine aspects of the digital and the human. The research we are involved in to further this blurring (e.g. by combining motion capture and VR) opens unique opportunities for self-expression and social connections, while also posing whole new privacy and security questions for both users, industry and regulators.

In this project we will explore children and adults’ identity, privacy and security online through a range of studies that do not just consider typical online use but also the ways in which people experience online environments, for example, through virtual reality and immersion. The use of VR headsets has opened up new questions around ethics and isolation. This project will explore a number of issues including the regulatory frameworks around VR content both 360 video and CGI. It would look at the use of this media by under 18s where at present there is no classification guidance or safeguards in terms of content. Additionally the embodiment of the self through avatars has a strong literature within psychology exploring issues such as body ownership, agency and self-location but little work has been carried out to consider the ethical and regulatory issues that are emerging as self (and embodied) avatars become more mainstream. Advanced motion capture now allows very realistic self avatars. While this opens up further exciting research questions around embodiment there are a range of ways in which harm may occur, or may be reduced / ameliorated through the use of avatars as PETs for young people. Using the Bath Nexus cohort, we will study the longitudinal effects of embodiment through a digital self: Would people add the same values to a doppleganger as to a real person?; How does one maintain, use, update and dispose of their avatar?

Working with our partner – Genies.com – we will explore how the provision of increasingly lifelike avatars in a VR environment can be designed to support self-expression and community while mimimizing potential harm.