dan-obrienThe most significant VR announcement from CES 2017 was the Vive Tracker, a modular Lighthouse-tracked ‘puck’ attachment that will enable users to track additional objects within VR experiences. It has the potential to drive a lot of new innovative applications and gameplay for consumers, to kickstart a lot more mixed reality livestreams, but also grow the overall VR ecosystem as there will be more high-end B2B applications, advertising campaigns, and VR arcade peripherals.

I had a chance to catch up with HTC’s Dan O’Brien, who is the Vive General Manager of America, Europe, Middle East, and Africa. We talked about HTC’s emphasis of growing the ecosystem in 2017 with this new Vive Tracker, and what type of applications he expects that it will enable. We also talk about some of the privacy implications of virtual reality, and more about HTC’s approach of minimizing, anonymizing, and protecting any private data that is collected. There are amazing new opportunities for application developers to learn more about individual consumers than ever before, but with that power comes a responsibility to be conscientious enough to not record and store more identifiable information than is necessary.

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O’Brien used to be the Global Director of Compliance and Consumer Privacy & Security for HTC, and so privacy is near and dear to his heart. He says that privacy has been an important priority for HTC from the beginning since they’ve had a privacy engineering team working to anonymize, minimize, and protect any customer information that’s captured.

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O’Brien says that there’s three different layers of security including the operating system, the driver software that runs the VR hardware, and finally the application developers. There are privacy considerations at each layer, and it’s up to each application developer to decide what information to capture and keep from their users. Once eye tracking becomes an essential part of the higher-end VR systems, then the fidelity of available insights will be both vast and powerful. O’Brien says:

I sit in talks sometimes where I’m the one saying to the publishers, ‘Hey, you’re going to be able to have a one-for-one relationship with a consumer that you’ve never had before with VR. You’re going to be able to learn so much more about what they like, what they dislike, whether that ad worked, whether they were interested in that product. You’re going to be able to learn so much more about your consumer if you’re doing the right things. It’s no longer going to be about clickthroughs. You’re going to know if they actually looked at it, and picked it up and interacted with it.’ But on the flip side of that is ‘How much of that information should you be grabbing? And what should you be holding onto? Then once you hold it, and once you draw that information in, how well are you protecting it?’

Whether it’s the developer of applications, hardware, peripherals, or the operating system O’Brien says that “Some people take too much information. They really don’t need to have all of that.” He’s calling for VR hardware and software developers to be very conscientious about what information they’re collecting and how well it’s being protected, especially since the Federal Trade Commission has the power to fine companies, but also to stop companies from selling or importing their products.

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He says that consumer privacy is a contract that fosters trust with consumers, and that it’s a relationship that is directly connected to their brand and whether or not consumers will recommend their product to others. But privacy is also about protecting sensitive consumer information from hostile hacks or a potentially overreaching government.

Throughout 2017, there will be more dialog between government regulators and virtual reality companies to explore the potentials and risks. Virtual reality has the potential to enable so many amazing new capabilities, but also a lot of new risks from collecting and protecting sensitive biometric data. O’Brien says, “It’s a balance because you don’t want regulation that stops innovation. You don’t want too many rules that stops just what’s getting started to really flourish into what it could be, what it should be, and even what it will be.” He says that there’s already a lot of existing consumer protections for mobile phones and gaming software that be built upon, and that it’s more of a strategy of incremental improvement rather that needing to building something entirely new.

HTC and others will continue to sit down with government regulators throughout 2017 to explain critical concepts, existing approaches to protecting information, as well as contextualizing software concepts like heat maps that have additional implications when they’re applied to virtual reality.

There have also been larger trends within the tech industry that have been moving towards surveillance-based business models that correlate all of your internet activity into a singular identity, and I’ll be continuing to explore some of the privacy implications of virtual reality in future interviews.

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Here’s a promo video of one of the Vive Tracker applications by DotDotDash, and was presented at HTC’s demo area at CES:


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  • bschuler

    HTC seems to be really at the forefront of PC VR in every way imaginable and measurable these day. I really like the way they are accepting stewardship of PC VR and not just trying to make a quick buck.

    • Get Schwifty!

      You are incorrect sir, they are very definitely looking to make a fast buck like everyone else. Don’t think there is some higher agenda here, if they could make more money with selling smart shoes they would. Stewardship my #ss LOL.

      Not sure why people feel compelled to try to romanticize companies, as in the meme of the evil black hat Oculus and the good white hat HTC…. it’s not even close to the cold make-a-buck realities these industries operate in.

      • Stephen Gareson

        Hahaha. Why did you just play the “Oculus is the victim”-card Schwifty? Go suck Zuckerburg’s dick somewhere else.

        • Get Schwifty!

          Not sure how you could construe Oculus as a victim, you might want to reread what I wrote and actually understand what I said.

          • Jeff Recobs

            I totally agree with your assessment. Although, I do have more confidence as a consumer in HTC/Valve.

      • bschuler

        LOL, Quick buck? You mean like throwing you VR headset in the trash and all your games when you buy your next headset? WTF you smoking? I see HTC stewardship as everything from their expandable non-proprietary eco-system (replace controllers, headset, etc.. from another manufacturer but keep the rest). Thereby affording people to slowly upgrade parts of their systems over time and less ending up in the landfill. To stewardship of taking an active role in what is acceptable via data mining, etc. They really have accepted OPEN standards and being open as best for the industry and are really doing well because of it. But whatever, enjoy the road you’ve taken with the Rift.. hopefully it won’t be the very probable dead end everyone thinks it will be.

    • Rob

      Vive is a good product, but Valve/Steam is out to take your money any way they can. People make things for the Vive because there is no quality control to sell your product on Steam.

  • Ombra Alberto

    How many useless tools. No one will use them ever. Only loss of time.

    • Get Schwifty!

      It’s amazing… HTC will get good press but the reality is I bet less than one fifth of the home users will buy it. I suspect “real world” applications are actually going to benefit more from this integration.

      • Tomas Sandven

        I can see myself buying a gun prop for playing certain games, as long as the price is reasonable (less than ~100$)

    • Rob

      I am for any development. However the real bat thing could get scary. My wife already hit me in the side of the head with the Touch controllers.

  • crim3

    Data mining, so scary. It’s not only that it’s a big business, but it’s gonna be one of the big business alongside drugs, armament and petrol. Every big enough company is now pushing hard trying to get a good bite of the cake on this modern gold rush. And all these EULAs we accept everyday which are “agree with us or leave”, plus the ever increasing “login and permanent connection” requirement to everything we do on a digital device… we are doomed.

  • NooYawker

    Privacy is a big issue with me, that’s why early on I decided to go with the HTC Vive. Facebook is a company that profits on harvesting personal information. I’m just lucky that the Vive seems like the better product. I enjoy having room scale which is a major part of VR.

  • Wow, good points here. I never considered before just how easily eye tracking can be used to… effectively… READ somebody’s mind. Your eyes betray alot about you. Where your gaze goes can tell you things about yourself even YOU might not know. They could gauge your sexuality, your aversions and fetishes, wishful thinking, boredom, patriotism. It could be used to build a profile of you on the level even your mother own doesn’t know.

    Actually, evil thought here… this could be used by law enforcement to track truthfulness and read people’s intent. Just try to control where your gaze goes for more then a few minutes, it’s nearly impossible. Flash a few images, analyze the results. I bet you could pry a person’s mind wide open. The new “Lie Detector”.