Immersive technologies and sustainability: the key challenges and opportunities ahead

As immersive technologies such as augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR) and virtual reality (VR) become more prevalent, it is crucial to consider their wider impact on the environment and society. While these technologies offer exciting new possibilities for education, they can also leave a significant carbon footprint and contribute to e-waste. This blog post explores some of the sustainability related opportunities and challenges for education providers when using extended reality (XR) technologies.


Liam Green-Hughes (University of Kent)

Kathryn Woodhead  (Jisc)

Cal Innes (Jisc)


Recently, the sustainability sub-group within the ALT/ Jisc UK XR community met up to discuss the financial, social and environmental impact of immersive technologies. This blog post is a summary of this discussion.


The lifecycle of devices

One of the first key challenges the group discussed was the short life cycle of these emerging technologies. With rapid advancements in technology, it has become common for companies to release newer versions of their devices every few years. Meta for example, plan to release four new VR headsets between 2022-24.


This frequent release of newer models can be attributed to the need to keep up with the increasing demand for higher quality graphics/ experiences, which often requires better hardware specifications. However, this short life cycle poses a challenge for educational providers as they have to balance keeping the pace of technological innovation with being environmentally sustainable.


How can we extend the life of immersive technologies?

One of the first things we can do to prolong the longevity of immersive technologies is to keep them secure, protected and up-to-date. Keeping devices up-to-date ensures they are running at optimal performance and avoids obsolescence.


When it comes to virtual reality, the level of immersion can be so convincing that students often forget their physical surroundings. As a result, accidents occur, damaging equipment in the process. Delivering training to students on how they can use the equipment safely is crucial. We have recently put together some examples of risk assessments and health and safety advice in our Extended Reality (XR) community. Investing in proper storage and protective cases for devices (such as redbox or looking glass) when not in use can also prevent damage and prolong their lifespan.


When such devices reach the end of their lifespan, it’s worthwhile to have a clear plan in place for their recycle/ re-use. Organisations such as Stone Group, for instance, provide e-waste recycling schemes throughout the UK, ensuring that equipment can be reused or if unable to be reused, properly recycled in environmentally responsible ways. It’s also worth contacting Meta or HTC – Vive themselves, to find out what recycling schemes they offer.


If the devices are still in working order but simply outdated for your institution’s purposes, consider donating them to local schools or charities in the area. This not only prevents premature e-waste but also extends the shelf life of the devices, benefiting others who may not have access to such technology. In addition to reducing the environmental footprint, donating, or sharing devices can bring benefits to your institution, including the potential to attract prospective students. An excellent example of this is how Gower College Swansea use virtual reality with local schools to run virtual tours/ open days for potential students.



The future of extended reality (XR) content

Concern was also raised around XR content. How can organisations ensure they are creating content that can be reused or preserved for future use?


The Digital Preservation Coalition (2022) for example, ranked virtual reality experiences as being an ‘endangered digital species’. Many virtual reality experiences are unfortunately being lost because the outdated applications/ software cannot communicate with the upgraded hardware (Digital Preservation Coalition, 2022).


How can we preserve content for the future?

One of the ways in which we can preserve content for the future is to conform to industry standards and best practice. Organisations such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), Khronos Group, W3C and the European Committee for Standardisation (CEN) are actively working on defining protocols, formats, and APIs for XR content. Education providers should make note of these standards and align their content creation processes accordingly. This includes using open and widely supported file formats, adhering to interoperability guidelines, and utilizing metadata and annotation frameworks that enhance content discoverability and accessibility.


For example, IEEE have developed sets of standards for the development of immersive video or 3D models, offering advice on how to ensure inter-operability between various platforms. Likewise, Khronos Group developed Open XR, with the aim of simplifying software development, allowing content to be used by a variety of different devices. The European Committee for Standardisation (CEN), focused on developing a set of standards for the creation of learning activities within extended reality.


Ensuring accessibility of XR content is vital as it promotes inclusivity, allowing individuals of diverse abilities and backgrounds to benefit from immersive and engaging learning experiences. You may have come across W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines for websites and online content – W3C have also developed a draft set of standards for the production of digitally accessible XR experiences.


By conforming to such standards, institutions can future-proof XR content and facilitate its seamless integration into evolving technological landscapes.


Developing robust content through collaborative approaches

Aside from the technical considerations of how to preserve content, it’s worth considering how the content will be used in the long term. One of the ways to encourage uptake of XR content in the long term is to have multiple use cases for the headsets and/ or content in mind.


For example, by setting up a headset sharing process, allowing multiple courses or departments to get access to the equipment. Additionally, content can be shared across multiple departments too. A VR simulation focusing on human anatomy can be used for a variety of subject areas such as biological sciences, hair and beauty, health and social care or even sports sciences. A recent example of this is how Cardiff University created their own virtual hospital, intended to be used across multiple disciplines such as nursing, medicine, midwifery, physiotherapy and occupational therapy.


The concept of multidisciplinary collaboration can also be extended to the realm of content creation. For instance, when developing XR content that involves storytelling in healthcare, a creative approach could involve incorporating the expertise of Health and Social Care learners, engaging English learners in generating the story and leveraging the skills of Media learners in producing the content.


Join the XR community

If you are interested in any of the topics discussed in this blog post, we invite you to join the ALT/ Jisc Extended Reality (XR) community of practice and get involved in the discussion.

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