Property Rights in Augmented Reality

We don’t need to tell you that augmented reality is on the rise. Apple’s new iPhone X and their latest iOS update have made that clear as day. This is just the beginning. It may seem a strange idea, but it’s anticipated that AR glasses (and even contact lenses) may rise to be the new norm in coming years. But even in these relatively early stages, where consumer access to AR is mostly limited to the smartphone, there are some ethical, legal, and regulatory issues being raised, particularly when it comes to physical space and property.

Firstly, let’s look at the issue of virtual graffiti. Graffiti created in augmented reality is only visible when parties are given access to it, largely via their smartphone. It may be created in a way that sends out an alert when a passer-by approaches, urging them to hold up their phone to see the work. Between small groups, this may not be a problem in itself, but where AR graffiti is available to the general public, it becomes a ‘public statement’ and thus raises questions that need to be answered.

When physical graffiti is created, it must be with the permission of the owner of the wall that is being graffitied in order to be legal. So, is virtual graffiti an infringement on the rights of a property owner if they have not sought permission? And what even constitutes property in the virtual space?

There is an existing law, interestingly, that defines at what point a physical space becomes public. Now, will this law need to be adjusted to incorporate augmented reality? We also need to consider whether we should allow virtual space to be considered ‘property’ itself which can be purchased at a price. 

Unlike physical graffiti, AR graffiti is not immediately visible, of course. So the property owner, or even police, may not know it is there. If it can only be seen by certain people at certain times, can you regulate that at all?

Of course, a lot of it comes down to freedom of speech, but there’s also libel laws to consider. Much of the law on AR in public space may come down to the specifics of what is being expressed. If mixed reality space is being used for disparaging messages about individuals or businesses, it has an effect that is not limited to the virtual realm. 

Whether or not the physical space is under owners’ jurisdiction, the statement being made in AR should probably need to be regulated by law. But then again who gets to decide what information is acceptable and/or true? Truth, in our current climate, is an ethereal thing - and virtual spaces just add to the problem.

Yelp Monocle is a tool that allows reviews of businesses and other establishments to be layered on top of a map, with a pointer to that physical location. Again, public sentiment is allowed free reign in the virtual space - and, once again, who decides what reviews are reliable?

Putting that to one side, there is another, perhaps more pressing, issue that must be addressed:

Should we allow data gathered by businesses, agencies, law enforcement, or even social media, to be displayed in AR at people’s addresses? Well, that sounds like a no-brainer, but if the virtual space is ‘international waters’, anything goes. So, theoretically, anyone could see your holiday snaps just by training their smartphone on your house. Clearly, that would breach numerous privacy laws, but unless we can define who owns the virtual space, it’s a free-for-all.  

There are situations in which data availability like this could be useful, and some PropTech companies, in particular, are seeing the potential benefits. For example, there are apps emerging that allow buyers to hover over a marketed property to view a virtual property tour directly from their phone. In instances like these, the seller gives their express permission, of course. 

Widely, this sort of application could be very useful in advertising, and in retail in particular, allowing consumers to find out more information on products before purchasing. The reason augmented reality is on the rise is because of these thoroughly useful applications, but that doesn’t mean that we mustn’t tread carefully to ensure that the new metareality we are creating is safe and fair for all.