What are the Ethical Considerations of Augmented Reality?


This time last year, I gave a talk on the ethics of VR at TOA Berlin. Because VR can be so immersive, I argued, we need ground rules about simulating situations that could be considered torture, and making sure we get explicit consent before putting people in headsets to show them content that could be triggering. This all seems fairly sensible and black-and-white, and there was a general sense of agreement in the room.

But what are the ethical considerations for augmented reality? As it stands now, that’s a trickier question — because AR is a layer on top of the physical world, at this point there is still some grounding for whatever the experience might be. Things will come to life and animate, but there is a still a sense that it’s make-believe; that’s not a knock against the tech, that’s just the way it is. But several recent conversations, as well as a talk I gave at Northside Festival last week and a great piece in Slate about augmented reality and property rights, are starting to raise some concerns.


At an ARCore workshop at Google last week, the moderators had us demo a fun app called “Just a Line.” You could “draw” in spaces in AR and then share those drawings with friends — seems harmless and fun, right? Ah, but this is the internet, my friends, and this is why we can’t have nice things. It’s super easy to imagine a world where this gets more popular, and you can’t walk by certain buildings without seeing hateful graffiti. Because the graffiti isn’t real, it’s almost more dangerous — we can confront things out in the open, at least, but if things are only visible to a handful of people in an augmented world, we have little hope of stopping them.

The Slate piece also raises an interesting point about consent and AR — if AR ads are projected on your home or office, for instance, what are your rights if you want them taken down? On the flipside, could you theoretically sell your blank spaces as territory for AR ads? And if AR ads are all individualized, as they might be in the future, what if you only want to show some ads and not others? Will huge companies outbid smaller players for this privilege, returning us to the status quo?


When Pokemon Go became a sensation two years ago, it had to grapple with some of these problems — people were playing the game at memorials and in cemeteries, as well as on busy roads. The team solved this by geo-fencing certain areas where the game wouldn’t work, and that seemed to repair things. But simply creating blocks won’t do much or address the bigger questions of how to remix the world responsibly as we move forward.

The worst case scenario is that of a digital Potemkin village, where people only see what they want to see, and can block out social ills. The internet and social media have pulled us in that direction already — we need to start having these conversations now so the AR won’t move us further in the wrong direction.