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Technology in motion: when virtual reality meets vertigo!

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Whilst flicking through your latest edition of The Legal Technologist, I am sure you were not expecting to stumble on a Legal Tech’s tale of nausea and a youth spent green faced, clutching a bucket in the back seat of her parent’s car. But alas, here you are. As you have come this far and not baulked (excuse the pun), then perhaps you might like to continue reading… and maybe, just maybe, my tales of woe around travel, or pretty much anything in motion, sickness might help us to ask and hopefully address some overdue questions about our industry.

I was fortunate enough to attend an in-person Innovation and Technology event recently. The inevitable dash to secure a train seat that faced forwards aside (if you know, you know), I had not been expecting to come face-to-face with my arch-nemesis: motion sickness.

Alongside a number of interesting panel discussions and keynotes, a range of companies from start-up to well established tech giants demonstrated their products and gave insights into the technology landscape of the future.

A theme began to emerge: the metaverse is coming, in fact it is here…and it is not going anywhere anytime soon. Of course, the company’s selling this vision were not likely to say otherwise. But, in spite of this vested interest, I found myself agreeing. Virtual, or at least augmented, reality is here, and it is here to stay.

Many of these demonstrations were inspiring and impressive. Virtual reality at our fingertips, an opportunity to explore an augmented reality, a chance to venture into virtual twins of event spaces alongside my personalised avatar who was able to interact with the virtual “world” around me. The opportunity that the metaverse presents is unquestionably limitless. Whilst conversation around switching-off or going tech-lite are sure to occur in our post-covid world, there is an inevitability to the exploration of the infinite space that virtual reality presents.

It was as one of the many demonstrations took place, that I began to feel the dreaded sensation of nausea creeping in. Not your run-of-the-mill, too-many-the-night-before sickness, instead, the sort that goes from 0-100 in seconds and sets your head and stomach spinning.

As my opening nostalgia around my childhood battles with car sickness indicates, this is not something new for me. Video games are largely inaccessible forms of media, 3D cinema is off the table, and do not get me started on VR headsets.

However, it had not occurred to me, as it perhaps should have, that this inaccessibility is capable of affecting not just the way that I spend my free time or socialise, but also transgressing into my world of work.

Whilst my own motion sickness is my no means classed, nor should it be, as an impingement on my ability to work or diligently conduct my job, the more I participated in these demonstrations (and the sicker I started to feel) the more I wondered whether this would be said of my workplace in the future.

Here in the legal technology community, we are proud to be forging ahead technological development to enhance all aspects of a lawyer’s life. We assess their pain points, streamline their ways of work, and limit their exposure to repetitive and mundane tasks. We are no stranger to the idea of developing technology for good: to solve our client’s problems and for the good of our business. But, as we forge ahead with our plans to revolutionise the way that legal services are provided to our clients, I wonder if it is worth pausing for a second and questioning – “is this good for everyone?” and perhaps more importantly, “if it is not…what are we going to do about it?”

“Is this good for everyone?”

Digital poverty, the absence of access to technology, training and skillsets needed to thrive in our digital age, is an indisputable reality. The pandemic both accelerated and shed a light on the digital divide and the increasing concerns around access to affordable technology for households across the country.

This divide is not something we often consider in the world of legal technology. If we are honest, most of us work for multi-million-pound corporations and are fortunate enough to have the latest and greatest technology available to us around the clock. However, tech-poverty exists, and emerging technology is capable of widening the digital skills gap present in the UK even further.

With this in mind, I want to present you with a hypothetical: Meta is already creating virtual spaces in which avatars of the users own choosing can participate in a range of activities from team meetings to virtual coffee breaks. The technology is not so far removed that we cannot reasonably foresee a future that calls for meetings with our clients to be hosted in a similar way. For those of us who deal with other multi-million-pound companies, there will no doubt be stumbling blocks along the way as we standardise systems and grapple with the inevitable data protection risks that will emerge.

But what does this mean for clients who do not belong to that privileged category. What does it mean for the individual seeking legal advice or resources, who may not have access to a VR headset or Meta’s latest product? What does the possibility of virtual reality in the workplace say about our grasp on access to justice and the challenges that technology will present for both lawyers and their clients in the future?

You could easily argue that those meetings can be conducted face-to-face. You could argue that. But you would be wrong. We only have to look two years into the past to realise that in-person interaction is not as assured as we once believed it to be.

What does this have to do with motion sickness, I hear you ask? The conversations around the inaccessibility of hardware that have emerged post-pandemic are essential. It is vital that we as the tech community begin to address these concerns and look for ways in which we will bridge the ever-growing disparity between necessity for development and limited resource. But as we do this, we need to be looking inward as well. Look around you – how many of your colleagues are dyslexic or epileptic, how many suffer from migraines, how many of them like me, endure motion sickness?

Unlike technology-poverty, this problem is staring us straight in the (very real) face. It might be the intern, your chief executive, or the teammate you sit next to every day – how much are we considering them and what the future of their workplaces might look like?

“If it’s not…, what are we going to do about it?”

With all signs pointing towards Web 3.0 and the future in the metaverse, is anybody asking the question: what risks does this new, impressive, and emerging technology pose for the existing digital skills gap? And might this gap be worsened by the inclusion of virtual and augmented reality into our workplaces?

The answer to these questions is surely, yes. So, I pose to you, what are we as the legal technology community going to do about it?

Dr Lydia Jane Hazlehurst
Legal Technologist
Weightmans LLP

Photo by Eugene Capon

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