Our response to The Department for Culture, Media and Sport Committee inquiry into the potential impact this technology could have in the worlds of sport, entertainment and news.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee inquiry into immersive and addictive technologies is examining the development of technologies such as virtual and augmented reality, and the potential impact these could have in the worlds of sport, entertainment and news. The inquiry also looks at how the addictive nature of some technologies can affect users’ engagement with gaming and social media, particularly among younger people.

The inquiry raises issues at the heart of our Future:Good campaign, and Charities Aid Foundation submitted evidence to the DCMS committee in May 2019.  Our response calls for government to consider the important role that civil society should play in discussions about the opportunities and challenges posed by emerging technology.


For some time we have been exploring the impact of emerging technologies on the work of charities and the ways in which people are able to support them. It is crucial that representation from the charity sector is included in future discussions about immersive technology. These organisations represent many of the most marginalised groups and individuals in our society, so it is vital that they are able to speak up and highlight concerns about the potential impact of emerging technology.

Government can play an important role in ensuring that charities and their beneficiaries are able to harness the potential benefits of immersive technology by supporting charities to develop the required skills and knowledge to embrace technological innovation, and to speak up on behalf of individuals and communities who may be adversely affected by technological change.

The pace of technological change

In terms of the understanding of augmented reality and virtual reality technology (‘AR’ and ‘VR’) in the charity world, our sense is that there are small pockets of exciting innovation set against a backdrop of low levels of awareness, skills and understanding.

This is not a situation unique to immersive technology: more broadly, charities often struggle to adopt and adapt to new technologies due to lack of resources and skills. One of the key points we wish to make is that charities will need support from policymakers, industry and donors to develop the potential of emerging technology for social and environmental good. Given the huge potential that this technology holds, the costs of failing to involve charities could be enormous.

In broad terms, immersive technology is likely to affect charities in three key ways:

  1. Creating innovative new opportunities to deliver social and environmental good.
  2. Changing the operating environment in which organisations work (eg by offering new methods of communication or interfaces).
  3. Creating new social problems that will affect the people and communities that charities serve.

Examples of AR and VR already being applied in a social good context include:

  • Charity:Water’s VR film ‘The Source' which gives viewers an immersive experience depicting the challenges faced by a young girl on her daily journey to get water in Ethiopia.
  • Alzheimer Research UK’s app ‘A Walk Through Dementia’ and The National Autistic Society’s ‘Too Much Information’ 360o video, which can be run on a smartphone using an inexpensive VR viewer (such as Google Cardboard). Both give viewers an insight into what life is like for sufferers of the condition in question.
  • Royal Trinity Hospice’s research into the use of VR to give end-of-life patients immersive experiences as a way of improving health and wellbeing.

Our research

We recently surveyed charity leaders about technology for our Charity Landscape publication which highlighted some relevant insights. For example, nearly three quarters believe that technology will change the nature of the problems that civil society organisations have to address.

Charities and technology

Investing in IT remains a key priority with 87% having done so previously or planning to do so in the next 12 months (up 4% since 2017). But while 59% of charity leaders say that they use new technology and social media effectively, only 29% agree that charities generally are using new technology effectively to increase giving.

Finally, although nearly nine in ten charity leaders disagree that technological change is irrelevant to their organisation, they were polarised when asked whether their organisation had a strategy in place for dealing with technological change (45% agreed versus 41% disagreed). There is a noticeable difference in opinion here between the leaders of small and large charities. While 63% of large charities agree than they have a strategy in place, this is only true for 38% of small charities and 47% of medium sized charities.

Impact on society

Immersive technology is likely to have an effect on charities by altering the nature of social and environmental needs; or creating entirely new ones. This could pose major challenges for charities if they are not only asked to spread their already-stretched resources even thinner, but find that they struggle to develop the technical knowledge required to understand these new problems and find solutions to them as well.

Future AR and VR interfaces may heighten the effect of platforms limiting people’s experience by trapping them in echo chambers in which they find their existing views and prejudices reinforced and amplified. VR interfaces enable the user to interact with the internet from within a computer-generated world while AR interfaces overlay elements of these virtual worlds onto the real world.

We have already heard a lot about the potentially damaging effects of filter bubbles on social media. The growing ubiquity of conversational interfaces such as Amazon’s Alexa or Microsoft’s Cortana means that this effect may be heightened. As a growing proportion of our experience becomes mediated by these interfaces, the danger is that they will present us with choices and interaction based on existing preferences and thus will limit our experience even further (perhaps without us even realising it). This will create new challenges for charities in terms of things like increased social isolation and decreased community cohesion.

Child with VR headset

Behavioural microtargeting

Immersive technologies represent an enormous privacy challenge because they present opportunities for the collection of even more personal data about users. In recent years, we have learnt how platforms like Facebook were able to collect and share up to five thousand data points on every user, which enabled them to create profiles of individuals that can reliably predict not only preferences but also their reactions.

The nature of AR and VR may allow for the collection of even more information and recent elections have proven the extent to which it is now possible to apply machine learning software to data on online behaviour in order to manipulate the way people react to information they are shown.

Companies are able to take advantage of insights from behavioural economics, which show the effect that different ways of presenting information and choices has on people’s actions. Therefore, platforms can employ ‘behavioural microtargeting’ to deliver thousands of variants of content which is optimised to influence individuals, based on the data collected by immersive technologies.

Charity working against the algorithms

A growing amount of attention is being paid to the ways in which algorithms - which underpin many immersive technologies - reflect the implicit values of human designers or historical statistical bias embedded in the training data when they come to operate.

Bias against entire demographic groups can emerge due to the design of the algorithm, their unanticipated use or decisions relating to the use of data. Given that many charities exist to represent the most marginalised people in society, this sort of bias (whether intentional or unintentional) is a real source of concern.

Charities must play a role both supporting victims of these problems, and attempting to prevent bias occurring in the first place it. This best achieved by working with technology companies and government to provide oversight of the use of algorithmic process and ensure that the unintended consequences are minimised.   

Charities are already starting to play a key role in tackling digital exclusion, ensuring that their beneficiaries are not left behind by the pace of technological change by helping them to develop skills and giving them the opportunities to make use new tools in a safe environment. 
As technologies like AR and VR become more ubiquitous, inability to use to them may hinder one’s ability to engage fully in society. Access may therefore need to be understood as a basic right, just as the UN declared access to broadband to be in 2016. Charities therefore need to ensure they are in a position to help their beneficiaries when it comes to accessing these new technologies.

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