With the popularity of Pokemon Go, the notion of augmented reality has been in the news a lot recently. For those unfamiliar with the term, augmented reality sits somewhere between reality (what we experience normally) and virtual reality (something simulated – think of Second Life or a video game.) Augmented reality is a blending of the two: using some kind of electronic device such as a smart phone or Google Glass, a person can see or interact with virtual elements superimposed on the world around them. Pokemon Go has players out in the world trying to capture the virtual monsters (Pokemon) that they can see by using their smartphone. Ingress, also made by Niantic, was a similar concept in that it had people out in the world attempting to progress in the game; using a phone players could see nearby portals, for instance, that they might try to capture for their side.
Beyond games, augmented reality seems ripe to be used for advertisements; imagine driving down the road and seeing virtual signs for yard sales or festivals rather than tattered paper ones. (Note: I do not endorse looking at your smart phone while driving. Let’s assume that for this to take off we must have made it easier to access the virtual aspects of augmented reality. Maybe we’re all cyborgs now.) Depending on how the augmented reality is implemented, you might be able to have restricted access to the virtual aspects; the people you invite (and send the right app or whatever to) can see the birthday party sign outside your house, but other people cannot.
Of course, there are down sides to this as well. Augmented reality is not necessarily created by people who own a physical place, which can lead to clashes. There have been objections to having Pokestops or even just Pokemon to capture in certain places: Arlington National Cemetery, Holocaust memorial sites such as Auschwitz, or even airports past security (since there are concerns that people may enter restricted areas while hunting for a Pokemon.) At the moment, augmented reality seems fairly lawless – it’s unclear whether you have a legal right to object to augmented reality involving your physical property. Yet, ethically speaking, it seems reasonable to give you some rights over the virtual space associated with your physical space; just as I can remove unwanted advertisements from my yard, I should presumably be able to remove unwanted virtual associations as well.
There are several reasons for this. First, it could interfere with my own use of that space, depending on how augmented reality is implemented. So, for instance, if there is some kind of shared virtual space that we all access, then we run the risk of having the space so crowded that no one can see any of the virtual content and/or the owner of that property cannot use the space themselves. (Think of overlapping notices on a bulletin board.) Now, if augmented reality is implemented in many discrete apps, as it is at present, this doesn’t really apply unless several people are trying to create content viewed by the same app. But there are other sorts of problems.
For instance, we may run into trouble if the augmented reality is apt to interfere (or cause people to interfere) with appropriate use of the physical space. If people are acting inappropriately at a museum, say, and disrupting the people who are there for its purpose, then the physical space’s intended use is being infringed upon. Although it would be nice if we could simply trust that people would behave appropriately in such venues, such optimism seems sadly unwarranted. If a site finds that people are not behaving well, removing the cause of that misbehavior is a reasonable next step.
Furthermore, even if there is no specific misbehavior or obstruction of a physical site’s intended use, there are juxtapositions that would be (at best) incongruous. For instance, having virtual graphic sexual content at the entrance to a kindergarten is problematic, not because the children would be exposed to it, but because we generally believe that small children should not be associated with sexual activities. Similarly, you probably ought to be able prevent someone from posting virtual slurs on someone’s house.
(For those concerned about free speech: you have a right to free speech, but you do not have a right to free speech in my owned space. I can kick you off of my lawn or out of my living room. Since augmented reality is a blending of virtual and physical space, it is reasonable to expect that this right may extend to the virtual space associated with my physical space. In a public area, it becomes murkier; is a right to free speech/expression the same as the right to augment space? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on whether augmentation is viewed more like speech or more like graffiti.)
So where does this leave us with augmented reality? Probably in a mess, like most things related to ethics and technology; our technological development far outpaces the development of society’s mores and laws. However, if augmented reality continues to develop (as opposed to fading away or being replaced by something quite different), then ultimately I believe that we will have to recognize some kind of moral rights to the virtual space surrounding a physical place; failing to do so contradicts other kinds of long-recognized rights to private property (and the use thereof) as well as social ideas about the appropriateness of activities in various contexts. Recognizing or enforcing this legally may be difficult, but happily I’m a philosopher, not a lawyer.