There are lots of reasons for bold predictions about augmented reality becoming more mainstream than its cousin virtual reality, but a big one is that the very nature of interacting with a digital world at the same time as the real one addresses a number of the concerns many have with immersive virtual experiences.
People are less likely to experience motion sickness, and complications associated with social isolation, as well as the psychological impact of a prolonged time spent immersed in VR, are likely to be significantly lessened (although that still remains to be fully proven in a research setting).
But just because augmented reality may appear to be safer, easier to implement on a large scale and more commercially viable, doesn't mean it comes without challenges. An environment that blends real life with computer-generated worlds will always raise important ethical and practical questions, like how and where we'll use these experiences, who exactly will govern them, and who owns the rights to what happens or is created within them.
We spoke to some industry experts about just a few of the concerns, debates and solutions associated with a world made up of mixed realities. These are the hurdles AR will have to overcome in the next five to ten years and beyond and the time to act is now.
Let's talk about ads
There's huge potential for AR to aid in industries like healthcare, design and entertainment. As you might expect, there's a lot of commercial potential too, and one big discussion that needs to happen soon is about just how we advertise to people within these spaces. This could be as straightforward as devising simple regulations about where to advertise, and encouraging more transparency about which brands have the right to plaster their messages within games or experiences that may not seem overtly commercial at first.
As the tech develops, there'll be much more to it. Chris Boyd, lead malware intelligence analyst at Malwarebytes, explains: "The natural evolution from VR to AR is to have adverts spring into existence out of thin air via wearables, perhaps in much the same way billboards in shopping malls use near field communications via mobile to show ads."
"While regional real world advertising rules and regulations can be very strict, now we're dealing with ads far removed from legislation designed to handle the old ways of advertising," Boyd told us. "Some laws do address digitised banners, but they may not be able to cope with virtual adverts popping in and out of existence via a shady ad network, based on a random assortment of criteria such as device used, location, app, and any form of digital profiling."
Image: Keiichi Matsuda/Dezeen
If executed well, brands have a huge opportunity when it comes to AR. In the near future, anything could become a media channel, brands can find out more about you than ever before – allowing them to better tailor experiences – and the scope for creativity is pretty limitless. With transparency, regulation and a focus on quality, mixed reality could force brands and advertisers to up their game like never before.
Data protection and privacy
Conversations around ownership and data collection are already rife in the tech industry. But discussions and regulation now need to be translated into AR too, especially if this tech is likely to be always-on in the not-so-distant future and used in all kinds of environments, from your home to your office to your hospital.
One big discussion point that's linked to advertising is data protection. Rosie Burbidge, senior lawyer at Fox Williams LLP, told us: "This is a huge issue which could have big implications for VR and AR companies who collect data on their users' habits, preferences and experiences as well as any more obviously personal data such as bank accounts or medical data. The General Data Protection Regulation comes into force [in the UK] in less than a year, on 25 May 2018. The bigger companies are all over this but it is low down most start-ups' agendas. It needs to move up the page."
So what's the answer? "The key to data protection law is transparency and consent," she says. "I think these are two principles to build into any business and can be applied well beyond the confines of data protection. As long as people are clear about the risks, most people are usually happy to proceed. Consumers should make sure that they only purchase content from reputable sources and don't divulge unnecessary personal information."
Experiences for everyone
Another consideration that impacts the tech space generally, but is especially pertinent when it comes to discussions about the new worlds of AR and VR, is about who makes them – and therefore who dictates what goes into them. Catherine Allen, a digital producer and director specialising in VR and AR for the BBC and others, explains: "If a virtual or mixed reality world is built by a Silicon Valley company, it's likely that a lot of the decisions about that world were made by young or middle-aged white men – these are the people who, statistically, make up the majority of decision makers in tech."
You could argue that the tech industry has always been dominated by the views and experiences of a select few. But as AR tech is so immersive, as well as focused on touching, communicating, learning and seeing, do we really want that all governed by such a small portion of the population?
"Their unconscious and conscious biases are likely to transfer through into the structures and systems of any world that's created," Allen explains. "If these teams don't address their bias, then I suspect worlds of mixed realities will become inaccessible, exclusive spaces. In my view, diverse teams are crucial to the build and design of any kind of virtual world."
Staying safe when realities mix
Pokémon Go players ventured into spaces including the Holocaust Museum, the edge of a cliff and other people's property
We've explored how violence within virtual worlds should be an important discussion point and safeguards need to be put into place. Although some of these same concerns still apply in AR, more real world injuries need to be considered. "There were plenty of stories of people playing Pokémon Go getting into scrapes, and that was simply walking around holding a phone up," says Chris Boyd. "AR adding a permanent level of interaction needs to be thought through from top to bottom before being rolled out to the public."
ODG ported Pokémon Go onto its smartglasses
And when it comes to physical problems, it's not just injury but product liability that might raise concerns. "The usual issues around quality, both hardware and software, will be a concern until the trusted players have been identified and sufficient high quality content created," Burbidge told us. "Buggy software and easily breakable headsets and trackers will create a PR problem for the industry as well as generating the inevitable lawsuits."
Pokémon Go didn't just make headlines because people ended up hurting themselves. Players also ventured into spaces they probably shouldn't have been playing games in, such as the Holocaust Museum, the edge of a cliff or someone else's garden, indicating that the AR was more real, or at least more of a priority, than the physical world.
So as AR becomes more commonplace, it raises the question about whether brands and developers should create experiences that can be used everywhere. Just like hosting an event, you wouldn't be able to hold it anywhere and there's so much to consider – like privacy, safety and respect. So who will police these experiences and how they interact with real world spaces? There's no surefire answer right now beyond the obvious – more rules, regulations and a code of standards to abide by. A recent case in the US in which the local government was sued by a mixed reality app developer has raised a lot of these issues and forced the industry to start paying attention.
Kids in AR
The question of how children should interact with VR has been another big point of discussion as consumer-facing headsets have become more prolific. Researchers have voiced their concerns regarding children and long-term use of VR, hypothesising that it may affect ocular or brain development.
Because AR is less immersive, it's likely (but not completely proven yet) to be less problematic from a health perspective, depending on the style of glasses/headset and the technology being used. But even if the hardware is safer, the content will still need to come with age restrictions. Rosie Burbidge says: "Many aspects of VR fall within existing regulatory regimes e.g. around age ratings for films and games, but which ratings apply and when will need to be considered."
Even then, we know adults and children can still get hold of products and content they're not meant to have. As they have done historically, creators will need to mark content as safe for certain age groups and people with specific health concerns, but parents and individuals have a responsibility to be vigilant and stay informed too.
"I think there always needs to be a balance in choice with the consumer and responsibility of the platform provider themselves," Henry Stuart, founder and CEO of Visualise, tells us. "Parents need to understand the risks and issues their children will be dealing with in the virtual world and, as with multiplayer gaming, establish a foundation in the child's lifestyle that allows them to partake healthily."
Consent, trust and how we view others
Like VR, augmented and mixed reality raises questions about how we'll interact with others when the lines between what's real and what's not are blurred. For starters, with AR tech there's a higher probability it'll be 'always-on' than with VR headsets, so there's a big question about AR and privacy, whether that's filming other people with built-in cameras or including them in your multi-user mixed reality experience when they don't want to be. New rules of social etiquette will spring up organically but the industry can also think about how people can give consent without interrupting the experience of others.
There are also deeper discussions about what happens to us psychologically when real meets virtual. Not enough studies have been done in this space, but we could speculate that including people in games and virtual environments can make you perceive them – or even yourself – in a different way, potentially as less 'real'.
Our AR future is now without social context, long-term research or a set of ethical guidelines
Researchers Batya Friedman and Peter H Kahn from the Department of Psychology at the University of Washington raised some of these questions in their paper A Value Sensitive Design Approach to Augmented Reality. "At times, augmented reality attempts to create a system such that the user cannot tell the difference between the real world and the augmentation of it. Yet, when all is said and done, and the technology is turned off, many users will want to know what was 'real' and what was 'augmented computation'. Was the TV news reporter really standing in front of gunfire in Bosnia? Or was the news reporter in a quiet studio with an augmented backdrop?"
And this, in turn, raises some of the discussions we've had before around VR and violence. Like, does violence in a gaming environment make us violent in the real world? Or in this context, would watching some form of violence take place in an AR game make us see that as less jarring, wrong or illegal if it was translated into the real world? This is a conversation that's been going on for decades and many suggest it has little to no effect on real-life interactions – and could even decrease occurrences of violence.
But of course, it's hard to say whether that's still the case in a fully immersive world of VR, or an ambiguous world that mixes the two together – where on some level it could be hard for us to distinguish what's real and what's not.
In the same vein, when it comes to interacting with other people, there's also a potential for AR to be used for manipulation – whether that's by brands and creators or by other people using it. This is why experts point to brands focusing on creating experiences that foster trust, enable people to feel safe and don't allow this kind of danger in the first place. Kahn and Friedman write: "Among persons – particularly interactions that have the potential to leave some persons vulnerable to the actions of other persons – it becomes crucial to design augmented reality such that trust can thrive."
Building a better future for AR
There are so many more points to consider and concerns to address when it comes to augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed reality, from issues of sex addiction and manipulation to the risk of eye-strain and headaches.
Whenever a new form of technology enters mainstream consciousness it's almostalways labelled as worrying and a threat to the way we live, work and play – especially if tabloids are to be believed. That's not to say all of this worry is misguided. After all, a future that's increasingly merging virtual and real environments is, right now, without social context, long-term research or a set of ethical guidelines. But with every issue that's raised, it's not hard to point to some viable solutions. And the need for clear ethical standards is an obvious one.
"I think a clear set of ethics and 'codes' or laws that people agree to in the virtual world is vital, as we have laws in the real world, the virtual world should have some too," says Henry Stuart. "Policing these rules is vital, and could be done by reporting, allowing for a jury to then watch back interactions in question and determine appropriate response."
Beyond that, there are many other answers. The most important that came up time and time again in our discussions with experts in the industry included more research, transparent business models, learning and growing as a community, being inclusive every step of the way and accepting responsibility.
"The industry should not shirk its duty of care towards its audience," the BBC's Catherine Allen told us. "We need constructive regulation, up-to-date audience research and more education around representation and perspective."
We should also remember that we've successfully navigated these murky waters before. "Both the legal and tech communities have lots of experience of dealing with new technologies," Rosie Burbidge says. "So even if there are some teething problems, I'm sure that most issues will get resolved before too long."
Main image: Still from Holograms for Freedom
More AR Week reads