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How biometric-based VR, AR could test the future of privacy

Companies are increasingly using biometric features to enhance their virtual and augmented reality offerings, which could bring new privacy challenges, executives said during an Oct. 11 Digital Hollywood panel discussion.

Jay Samit, vice chairman of Deloitte Digital, the digital consulting arm of the advisory firm, suggested the set-top box could soon be replaced by a virtual reality headset. A portable headset could beam a virtual TV or movie screen in front of the consumer, "so it's not just using the VR glasses to watch VR content. It's watching the whole past 100 years of content."

Samit envisions account authentication through retinal or facial scans, as it would be the most seamless way to enter the experience. "Biometric is going to be big," Jim Preston, executive producer at Nomadic VR, said. Biometric startups are popping up everywhere in the tech industry, and the big companies leading the industry are buying the up with notable appetite, said Preston.

Several major entertainment companies — including content creators like Walt Disney Co. and 21st Century Fox Inc. and service providers like Comcast Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc. — have invested in virtual or augmented reality services. Apple Inc. is also expanding its presence in VR. Among other offerings, its iPhone X will feature facial recognition authentication.

With more entertainment options equipped with biometric capabilities, more personal data is going to VR/AR hardware and software manufacturers. Corporations, and potentially hackers, will gain access to a new level of hyper-personal data, panelists said.

"VR is a data vacuum," Preston said. A headset can not only read your retina scan, but it can know where you are and how your reacting to what you are seeing. It can know your emotional state. By reading a child's reaction to certain content, a company can know "a 13-year-old is homosexual before he does," Preston warned.

"We've all given away privacy for convenience," he said, "But our children and our younger children, they're not opting into this tradeoff."