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The final front-eye? Legal issues around Google Glass and other Augmented Reality

Augmented Reality (AR) is an enhanced version of reality achieved by superimposing computer generated graphics and sounds on the natural world. It should be distinguished from pure virtual reality, which is an entirely computer generated environment in which the user immerses itself. For example, AcrossAir enables users to locate the nearest restaurants, hotels and landmarks  by pointing their mobile cameras at the street. Google Glass goes a step further by replacing the need for a handheld mobile device with a super charged (Geordi La Forge – apologies to non-trekkies) visor. Courtesy of Google Glass you can overlay Google maps on the street you down which you are driving.

Companies and even cities are adopting this new technology. Bordeaux now provides visitors with a tablet fitted with AR software, GPS and a route map of the historic city centre. At points of interest, tourists can trigger the tablet which then superimposes virtual images over landmarks helping tourists to imagine what Bordeaux was like in the 18th Century. IKEA plans to introduce an AR feature into its next catalogue. This will enable customers to superimpose a virtual image of a product into their home, giving them a “real” time view of the product in the intended room.

Most tech savvy people out there will already be aware of QR codes which, from a marketing perspective, are often a ‘lighter’ and cheaper alternative to AR. QR codes are sophisticated barcodes, which instead of merely being used to identify a product and its price at the checkout, can store a lot more information. They can also trigger actions like launching a website when accessed via the right technology (such as the QR Reader app on a smartphone).

QR codes are fairly mainstream, already to be found in retail outlets and on buses and tubes, but AR is undoubtedly the future, especially following the general release of Google Glass. AR creates excitement for the user, going further than QR codes and without the need for a specific app.

However, there is a danger that AR blurs the frontier between the real and virtual world and this may be dangerous, particularly for children. Bullying and/or ‘trolling’ on social media sites may just be the tip of the iceberg.

Legal issues arising from the use of AR technology

As I mentioned in a previous blog (see “Malice through the looking glass”), AR is likely to cause an explosion in privacy litigation. It will be harder to control your online presence if information is being constantly uploaded by people wearing Google Glass or similar technology. Those wearing AR technology are likely to be able to easily, quickly and surreptitiously access a lot of your personal information, such as your Facebook profile, LinkedIn profile, and job description etc.. If the objections to facial recognition technology are overcome, this could become a major issue.

Another issue to consider in relation to AR is misleading advertising. A complaint was filed in the US against the owners of Doritos following their AR digital marketing campaign. It was felt by some that AR technology can disguise marketing campaigns as video games or other forms of entertainment, making it difficult for young people to recognise them as adverts. The dangers of misleading advertising have also been highlighted recently by the furore over undisclosed sponsorship of celebrity tweets, the subject of the recent Dispatches programme ‘Celebs, Brands and Fake Fans’.

If someone is injured as a result of using AR technology, will they be able to sue the manufacturer? It is not hard to see how this could happen while playing ‘SpecTrek’, a mobile app which, when launched, will make virtual ghosts appear in your real world surroundings and encourage you to capture them with a net by running towards them. Myriad other legal issues could arise in areas such as data protection rights, trade mark disputes, copyright and defamation.

AR will no doubt form part of our future and users will soon be making subtle hand motions, wearing ‘smart’ clothing and using voice commands to interact with the web. However, all this technology development requires appropriate regulation to ensure that there are democratically decided boundaries and that we remain firmly rooted in reality. As a child, I was astounded to read about a world in which adverts were superimposed onto living as well as inanimate objects and changed according to each user and its mood. The future has now arrived and the law had better not blink.

Simon Halberstam