Augmented Reality – The curious question of who owns an augmented reality…

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Augmented Reality (AR) is big business right now, with the most public face of AR’s success being Pokemon Go which – in only its first year – saw more than 750 million downloads and earned over $1.2 billion. But, in amongst this virtual gold rush, there is the curious question of exactly who owns an augmented reality, considering that AR exists at the very confluence of the virtual and the real…


Pokemon Go ran into exactly this problem during its initial surge of sales in the summer of 2016; with a number of places – including the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, and the 9/11 Memorial in New York – calling for a ban on Pokemon in their vicinity.


In The Hague, Netherlands, matters went even further when the local authorities took Pokemon Go developer, Niantic Labs, to court in an effort to halt it from allowing rare Pokemon to spawn in a protected beach area called Kijkduin. Thousands of people had being flocking to the area, trampling protected beaches and dunes in an effort to snare themselves a Pokemon, and the costs to the authorities and police had been spiralling. Eventually, the case was halted when an out of court settlement was reached that saw Niantic Labs remove Pokemon from the area.


But, while agreements were reached in the previously mentioned cases and the problem dealt with, it doesn’t get to the heart of the issue – who owns an augmented reality?


When dealing with AR out and about in the real world, a vital component is geotagging – in which metadata is gathered about the location of a place or object. This allows virtual objects or places to be located within augmented reality, and attached to real objects or places. A geotag is simply data that includes information on longitude, latitude, altitude, etc.


And, while Pokemon Go might have been a nuisance to some, the ways in which augmented reality could be utilised within advertising or as a form of social media opens up the possibility for a whole range of potential abuses.


Let’s imagine, for example, that we use AR to create virtual advertisements or billboards that can only been seen when looking at the screen of your phone (or, in the future, through some kind of smart lens). Now, while I can’t place an advertising billboard on your apartment in real life, what it there to stop me placing one there within augmented reality? After all, it’s not really there, it’s only virtual…


But let’s take it a step further – what’s to stop me plastering my AR advertising all over a competitor? If I was Burger King, what is there to stop me deploying augmented reality adverting that – when viewed through a smartphone and a suitable app – covers McDonalds with adverts for Burger King and tells people how far they need to go to find one? Or perhaps virtual posters for an election posted all over a rival’s headquarters? In legal terms, it seems the jury is still very much out.

augmented reality election
How an election campaign might have unfolded using AR

And when it comes to cyberbullying and intimidation, the possibilities are endless. Augmented Reality is the next frontier for social media; a chance to not just have an online presence but to connect the virtual to the real. That could mean an AR profile that you constantly carry with you, viewable only to the people you allow, or it could mean users able to leave messages, images, and videos for others in an augmented space.


But what stops you geotagging someone you don’t like and ensuring that everyone with the app can see derogatory messages about them? Or even creating some kind of virtual ‘kick me’ tag that relates to a specific person’s device? Potentially, it moves the boundaries of online abuse a lot closer to the real world.


Currently, the legal boundaries of augmented reality are extremely poorly defined. The technology is racing ahead, and legislation – as has been the case over the last couple of decades – has been lagging woefully behind.


But can we legally even stop someone from displaying AR content related to a geotag that is located on private property? After all, the data is just that – data. It doesn’t exist on the property, it exists to describe the property; it no more infringes upon the rights of whoever owns it than a set of map coordinates. If we start ruling that the owner of a piece of land also owns the virtual rights to that land, what will that mean for the likes of Google Earth?


Which all means to say that – right now – the answer to the question of who owns an augmented reality is that we just don’t know. However, with AR set to be a market worth in the hundreds of billions in the next decade, we’re going to have to start trying to decisively answer that question very soon…

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