Make no question: There’s a lot of hype on the subject of augmented reality—especially when it comes to video games and other forms of user-driven entertainment. In order to assess the risks associated with augmented reality, it’s key to first have a working understanding with the core principles of the concept. Augmented reality—abbreviated shorthand to simply AR—is defined as a live direct (or indirect) view of a physical, real-world environment, the elements of which are augmented or supplemented by additional sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data, all of which is computer-generated. Augmented reality is related to a more general concept, mediated reality, in which a view of reality is modified (either diminished or improved on) by computer-generated means. The result of this is augmented reality, where technology functions by enhancing one’s current perception of reality, as opposed to virtual reality, where the a technologically created reality takes the place of a physical reality entirely. The key difference is that augmented reality brings the components of the digital world into a person’s perception of the real world.
There are seemingly infinite applications of augmented reality, from creative applications in literature, journalism, and the arts, to practical applications of augmented reality in architecture, construction, and industrial design, as well as diversified applications of augmented reality in the medical and military fields.
Augmented reality seems tailor-made for applications in journalism, as journalism is by definition a gathering of information from the world around us. Augmented reality allows for information to be displayed where it was originally picked up, which puts a very interesting spin on the subject of event reporting. Last year, smartphones created a mass market audience for augmented reality with the “living magazine”, which enables users to see additional layers of data, 3D objects, or other added features when viewing normal objects through smartphones or webcams. This type of journalism could be especially attractive for sports journalism, which could enjoy practical applications of augmented reality to include scrolling statistics, real-time updates, and blogposts. Social media is already seeing a boom in augmented reality, with a number of filters available through Instagram, and the Snapchat social media channel, which is based entirely on augmented reality. The advent of new AR products such as Google Glass, Micorsoft’s HoloLens expand the capabilities of other types of augmented reality—such as Google Maps—that users have incorporated into their everyday lives and have come to depend on. Most recently, the hugely popular game Pokemon Go has demonstrated the appeal of augmented reality within an already-interactive gaming app.
While the potential benefits of new applications using augmented reality seem endless, there are equally as many potential risk factors in play, and advances in developing new augmented reality technology are coming faster than researchers can track the long-term effects of their use. The clearest risk of augmented reality is that users may inadvertently ignore the hazards of navigating in the real world—as an example, becoming so immersed in a game like Pokemon Go while operating a vehicle that the immediate needs of safe driving fall by the wayside. Likewise, augmented reality might cause users to misjudge the speed of oncoming cars or other road obstructions, as well as to underestimate the user’s own reaction time to oncoming obstacles. There is also emerging evidence that extended use of augmented reality devices might cause some users to experience problems faced by the visually impaired, including reduced depth of focus, loss of peripheral vision, decreased reaction time, and changes in the perception of both distance and speed. The risks of augmented reality hardware to impair user vision over time and extended use suggest that both the designers of these devices and the users of AR devices should both exercise caution and moderation until the data can be collected, tracking the long-term effects of use on users of all age demographics and across the spectrum of physical ability.
In 2004, the debut of Google Earth revealed yet another potential risk of augmented reality, with a number of countries expressing concern over the “sight sensitive” locations and objects in the Google Earth database—places and structures that simply allowing one’s enemies to see would compromise their security. In 2007, private individuals expressed similar concerns with regard to the debut of Google Street View and whether the detail revealed in the Google databases could compromise citizen privacy. These concerns are inextricably interwoven with the concept of “geotagging”—the ability for anyone to freely associate virtual information with physical locations, and then anonymously share it with others. This ability opens up countless doors for augmented reality to be used in unintended, illegal way. Because augmented reality toes the fine line of “free speech”, there’s a very real risk that nefarious users might opt to exercise their right to “free speech” by “geotagging” public or private buildings with the virtual content of their choosing, and having the ability to filter who has access to this information—but not allowing access to remove the information. In theory, businesses and citizens could be targeted by hostile users in the virtual world and the repercussions could very well play out in the “real world.” While there are very real benefits to the ability to geotag locations with unbiased information, the bigger risk is that negative use of this ability will overwhelm any potential benefits. Spiteful neighbors, paparazzi, stalkers, cyber-bullies, vigilantes, and criminal offenders all have equal access to geotagging information, and the truth of the matter is that many business owners and private citizens just don’t know what kind of geotagged information is attached to their residences or places of business. While developers of augmented reality devices tout their use in law enforcement and national security applications, the dark flipside to those applications is that this information is also accessible to gangs, organized crime, vice, and other criminal elements, to say nothing of providing another information stream for the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Defense to monitor.