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.

Introduction

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.