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Virtalis Reach DNA: Security and IP Protection

Barry King
Product Architect

It's hard to put a sticker on a timeline and say this is where the development of Virtalis Reach began. Almost as soon as Visionary Render, our desktop visualisation application, was being put to work by engineering and industrial organisations across the world, back at HQ we started to pick up signals from the way it was being used, and we began to see our new platform on the horizon. As we pieced together these clues and started focusing the vision, there was something new in the picture, something that until then hadn't stood as tall on the visualisation landscape: Security and IP Protection.

Security and IP Protection doesn't immediately seem like a towering concern in the business of cutting edge, high performance graphics, collaboration and immersive experiences. But, the more we here at Virtalis connected the dots, from customer's use-cases, pain points and the designs of solutions, the more we were able to show that far from being a side concern, actually Security and IP Protection needed to be comprehensively woven into our system, it needed to be part of the DNA.

So which features did that DNA program?

The first of many shocks to our system was the realisation that to address a sufficient breadth of use-cases, and thus be a viable platform, it is not possible to trust the user's device that is consuming the data. The value of digital assets is realised when they can be accessed without friction, by many users, in many different roles and domains. But that cannot mean the distribution of IP, which ranks among an organisations most valuable assets, is uncontrolled.

Fortunately, that same problem, access without friction, turns out to be part of the solution. By using a web browser as a light-weight viewer, Virtalis Reach is able to eliminate the need to download and install software, which inevitably results in compatibility issues. More crucially, this enables Virtalis Reach to tightly control the data that is transmitted at the last link in the distribution chain between the server at the network edge and the user's device.

With digital assets such as XR experiences, It's tempting to treat their consumption and distribution as independent problems. But as generations of systems for distributing other media such as music and video have shown, the most secure, effective and user-friendly method for digital rights management is streaming not downloading encrypted packages.

Virtalis Reach does not stream video of graphics - please see my article Virtalis Reach vs Cloud Gaming to read more about how we solve this - instead Virtalis Reach streams dynamically detailed geometry that is precisely chosen and restricted to the viewer. To understand how that works, how digital assets are secured, and why the user’s device should not be trusted: imagine the virtual world is a theatre stage that you want to explore, the producer however wants to make sure that you can’t steal the set design.

Security Theatre

One method to achieve that would be to have a camera person, on the stage, under your control transmitting a video back of what you would be able to see if you were there. That’s rather awkward because you have to very quickly tell the camera person what to look at otherwise the view will feel disconnected and delayed. The video they capture must be sufficiently detailed to fool your eyes, or you will not believe that you are really there, and that means a lot of information must be sent to you.

In our solution, instead, you are actually on the stage, but unseen stage hands are constantly fetching and putting away the scenery. As you look around what you appear to be seeing is the whole set, but really all the things out of your sight were put back in a locked prop cupboard. In the prop cupboard we have prepared different versions of the scenery, at different levels of details, and the stage hands only need to quickly swap in the more detailed versions as you get close enough to see them. By doing it this way you can look around without delay and the amount of information that needs to be sent to you, carried by the stage hands as it were, is less.

More importantly for IP Protection is what is on the stage is never all of the scene, just fragments sufficient for you to see and interact with it, exactly as if it were the real thing.

To achieve this we needed to carefully rethink the format of the media of XR experiences so that they are expressed abstractly and at a high level. This enables the XR experience to be detached from the runtime engine and securely streamed, unlike, for example, an XR experience built using a game engine.

In the analogy above, a solution that distributes the XR experience with a game engine would give you the whole theatre and the scene, and then unlock it with a hidden key. The producer hopes you don’t find that key or another way in because otherwise you now have all their IP.  That hope comes from trusting that the user’s device will protect the key and the theatre. But it has been shown repeatedly that security on user’s devices is not reliable. Unfortunately therefore there is no real hope there and streaming is the only credible solution.

Who trusts who?

Moving backwards from the network edge into our service architecture leads to our next genetic feature: Identity and Access Management (“IAM”).

Although self-evident now, the notion that a system for visualisation, collaboration and immersive experiences would need something as stern and comprehensive as an IAM platform raised eyebrows. However by closely listening to our customers and decoding the clues we were able to understand that this component must be comprehensively integrated. The IAM capability, delivered using Keycloak, allows Virtalis Reach to securely authorise user activities such as logins, connections to collaborative sessions, and to control access to data. Systems admininstrators can federate company-wide multifactor single sign-on, and user identities and group memberships can be managed and authenticated.

Trust within Virtalis Reach isn’t simply superficial and applied to users only, the IAM platform authenticates and authorises the software components of the system itself. These pervasive hierarchical trust relationships mean the connection from the web-browser through to the backend services is controlled and protected at every step.

What trusts what, and who trusts who, when applied to real world problems gets complex very quickly. Would you trust a system that had tried to make their own IAM-like components from scratch, or that does not utilise such functionality pervasively?

Security is ultimately an attitude that starts at home.

Strong controls on IP and iron clad Identity and Access Management would be thwarted if the systems they run on are subverted by malicious actors. Building in resistance to hacking is, yet again, not something that can be bolted onto a system. Security is ultimately an attitude that starts at home.

Recently at a company security workshop with an assembly of enthusiastic software engineers and other professionals I asked, "What is our platforms strongest security asset?"

The answer, although not in so few words, was our culture, some called it failsafe, others open and aware. Whatever we call it from this core means that we make the safe and often harder choice every time, we reject cutting corners and we don't ignore problems.

The result is that Virtalis Reach is a one of kind platform using containered microservices which isolate problems and operate within a tightly controlled orchestration platform which controls execution, network interconnections and access to resources.

A different class of animal

In conclusion, the demands of industrial XR and customer ecosystems have resulted in Virtalis Reach, a new class of XR platform that has Security and IP Protection not as a surface feature but encoded throughout. I argue that when considered from the point of view of applicability to real world customer uses-cases that this adaption is as valuable, if not more valuable, than the other common themes of XR platforms such as visual quality or device support.