New VR Tech Could Give You X-Ray Vision, but What About Privacy?

Augmented reality (AR) glasses might soon allow you to see through walls, but the technology is raising privacy concerns.

MIT researchers have built a headset that gives the wearer a kind of X-ray vision. The system combines computer vision and wireless perception to locate a hidden item. It's one of a growing number of AR devices offering the potential and perils of gathering new data types.

"While AR technology is here to stay, we nevertheless need to pay attention to the other side of the coin," tech analyst Jeff Kagan told Lifewire in an email interview. "We need to have built-in safeguards to protect our privacy and that of everyone around them."

Seeing Through Walls

The MIT device uses radio frequency signals, which can pass through objects to find hidden items labeled with RFID tags that reflect signals sent by an antenna, according to the MIT paper describing the project.

A headset tells the user where to go, while an app shows the hidden object as a transparent sphere. Once the item is in the user's hand, the headset verifies that they have picked up the correct object.

Users will need to demand that the companies making these products provide transparent and granular privacy controls...

"Our whole goal with this project was to build an augmented reality system that allows you to see things that are invisible—things that are in boxes or around corners—and in doing so, it can guide you toward them and truly allow you to see the physical world in ways that were not possible before," Fadel Adib, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and the senior author of the paper, said in a news release.

Kagan said that having a superpower like X-ray vision could bring risks. "AR is also an always-on, always-recording technology," he added. "That simply means it will invade users' personal space and violate the privacy of everyone around them."

Despite the perils of the technology, the MIT invention demonstrates the potential value of AR, an interactive experience that combines the real world and computer-generated content. AR will likely become the next dominant computing platform once devices become smaller, more stylish, and less expensive, Grant Anderson, the CEO of  Mirrorscape, an extended reality gaming company, said in an email.

"Imagine having an always-on device that integrates relevant computer graphics and information into your everyday world," he added. "By using geolocation technology to know where you are located, and computer vision and mapping technology to know exactly what you are looking at, such a device can overlay information like restaurant reviews and store information like opening and closing times right on top of each location."

Directions to your next event will be overlaid on the ground with directional arrows wrapping around corners and behind buildings, Anderson predicted. You'll never forget a face because facial recognition brings up people's social profiles alongside them.

Person wearing a VR headset interaction with data displayed in front of her.
Zinkevych / Getty Images

"Users will be able to leave digital items and artifacts like notes, or paintings, or statues for others that subscribe to that 'layer of reality' to find as if they actually exist at that location. Digital objects will persist in our world just like real objects," Anderson said.

Privacy Concerns

While AR offers many advantages, it could also reveal an unwanted flood of data. AR headsets could unlock private information inside your home that you don't want anyone to see, Robert Lowry, the head of security at BeenVerified, said via email.

One frightening possibility is that AR applications could track a person's location and usage patterns. "AR applications could collect sensitive information such as facial recognition data, voice recordings, or even objects or belongings in the room," Lowry said. "This data could then be sold to third parties or used for targeted advertising."

AR technology is so new that the industry is still wrestling with how to protect data. Anderson said AR devices have to be built with privacy in mind.

"Users will need to demand that the companies making these products provide transparent and granular privacy controls so you can turn off features that are not in use like cameras and body or eye tracking," he added. "When cameras are active, glasses should provide a light or other indicator to let people know they are being recorded."


March 6, 2023

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