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Bryce C. Newell, a post-doctoral researcher at the Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology, and Society, can’t recall his first encounter with augmented reality (AR). But he’s done more than simply dabble with advances in the field over the past couple of years. In 2013, he experimented with Google Glass while a Google Policy Fellow at the Univ. of Ottawa’s Sameulson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic. Later, he added AR apps on his Android to discover locations of interest based on his physical proximity. But by far, the most useful form of AR he’s used is Google Translate’s Word Lens feature.

Having recently moved from the U.S. to the Netherlands, “I find myself constantly using this technology to translate signs, mail, and items at the supermarket,” Newell says in an interview with R&D Magazine. “The real-time ability to get translations—however well accomplished—has been a tremendous help as my family and I have transitioned into a new culture with a new language.”

With recent advances in technology, AR is increasingly bleeding into human physical reality. No longer is it a whimsical fancy of science fiction.

“While broad AR technologies like Google Glass may be some ways off from actual use in everyday life, a number of applications of AR are actually having some practical impact on people’s lives,” says Newell. “For example, heads-up displays for professional cyclists, driving directions projected onto vehicle windshields…and AR-based assistants for fixing car engines. These are more limited in scope, but they do address important audiences.”

As companies continue funneling money into AR pursuits, policymakers and technologists need to work together in order to facilitate a smooth transition into an AR-laden world. Newell is the co-author of “Augmented Reality: A Technology and Policy Primer,” a recent paper from Univ. of Washington’s Tech Policy Lab. The paper identifies “some of the major legal and policy issues AR may present as a novel technology, and outlines some conditional recommendations to help address those issues.”

In broad strokes, the authors define AR as a system capable of sensing properties about the real world and processing the information in real time. The device is able to convey contextual information to the user, recognize and track real-world objects and be mobile, or wearable.

With AR comes potential issues the authors divide into two categories. “The first is collection, referring to the capacity of AR to record, or at least register, the people and places around the user. Collection raises obvious issues of privacy but also less obvious issues of free speech and accountability,” the researchers write. The second issue is display, which “raises a variety of complex issues ranging from possible tort liability should the introduction or withdrawal of information lead to injury, to issues surrounding employment discrimination or racial profiling.”

Current privacy law in the U.S. allows video and audio recording in areas that “do not attract an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy,” says Newell. Further, many uses of AR would be covered under the First Amendment right to record audio and video, especially in public spaces. However, as AR increasingly becomes more mobile, “it has the potential to record inconspicuously in a variety of private or more intimate settings, and I think these possibilities are already straining current privacy law in the U.S.,” says Newell.

Another area of concern is discrimination. Already, it’s possible to find a swath of information on an individual by performing a Google search or investigating social media profiles. A simple first and last name search on the Whitepages can provide a landline telephone number and address for many people.

AR changes the game. Imagine walking on the street and having information about any passerby displayed on an AR device, almost like a baseball card. Judgements can be made prior to that person even opening their mouth. In areas such as employment this poses a problem.

In the U.S., “policymakers have little practical ability to restrict the collection of personally identifiable information in non-private spaces or the processing of such information,” says Newell. “Indeed, policymakers also face a long and uphill battle to legally restrict the collection and analysis of publicly-available information, including property records, crime records, social media profiles, etc., because of an expansive notion that privacy equals secrecy.”

Newell recommends policymakers and technologists work together to mitigate potential legal problems AR presents. A starting point would be looking at existing legal guidelines and figuring out how AR may be implicated in them. “For example,” he says, “many states have restrictions on texting while driving that may be applicable in cases where AR use might even be hands-free but still create similar concerns about distraction that could impact public safety.”

Though fully implemented and ubiquitous AR may still be a few years out, it’s important the law isn’t left playing catch-up when these devices come to fruition.  

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