The most exciting thing happening in augmented reality right now is bringing the real world into the technology world. Whether it's experiments from Facebook, Google, SnapChat or Magic Leap, mixed reality, AR filters or prototype glasses, we can all see where this is heading.
And the hype seems justified. The tech is really moving quickly - we might get Apple AR glasses in 2018, and startups like Avegant are showing off cutting edge helmet prototypes right now.
Sorry to be the party pooper but is anyone writing some really robust privacy policies for all this sci-fi tech? I hope so because no-one is going to capture everything they see with camera glasses or wear Apple or Facebook's version of the internet on their face till they do. Now is the time to be thinking about this stuff and, as with smart home assistants, making noise about our concerns before it's too late.
How soon is now
Part of the problem is the Silicon Valley companies involved, some of whom have landed themselves in hot water over privacy before. Take Facebook.
"The first reaction to Facebook at F8 was really positive, all around playing with faces on the social platform," says Amandine Flachs, a VR & MR specialist at the Realities Centre. "This is a really big deal. But after a few hours, after people digested the news, influencers started to talk about: 'what are they going to do with your data?'
"All the main companies in AR right now aren't changing their policies. You're not just talking about something you're posting on a wall, for example, but what you're really doing, what you're saying. So it has raised some questions."
As the first wave of truly mainstream, consumer AR glasses will no doubt be quite expensive, and early adopters are more attuned to the benefits of giving up their privacy in return for cool, cutting edge stuff, the use in business and enterprise is perhaps more pressing. Many people will be given fancy new augmented or mixed reality devices as part of their work.
"Now is the time for manufacturers, employers and consumers to start thinking through the privacy issues as we believe AR/MR is set to play a significant role in enterprise from a communications, training, and even data visualisation perspective," says Jeremy Dalton, VR/AR lead at PwC UK, who lead a talk on the ethical dilemmas of virtual and augmented reality at VR World in London this month.
"Employers rolling out AR/MR devices to staff need to understand what information is being gathered and when, as well as where it's being stored or sent. This transparency is essential to allow users and businesses to feel comfortable, in control, and compliant with relevant legislation."
Whatever we get, it probably needs to be more considerate than the policies around Google Glass, though in that device's defence, it was always an experiment. They're not AR, but having a read of Snap's Spectacles policy is a one place to start - how the ring of LEDs notifies the subject; how Snaps are transferred to Memories etc. Still when these first launched, there were some 'privacy panic' headlines.
I personally would like to see companies like Google taking a leaf out of their own book as per other devices. Take Google Home - I've put my tinfoil paranoid hat on before when writing about always listening, AI assistants in the home. As a result of people's genuine worries, Google and Amazon have taken special precautions in the privacy policies.
So, for example, Google Home stores all your recordings which could be a problem if someone has your password or you live in a shared flat. But what's nice is that you always have the option in Google's My Activity page to view and delete recordings. Amazon offers something similar in its Settings of the app but you need to go to your browser if you want to bulk delete.
A similar thing could work nicely for AR glasses, always watching instead of always listening. Maybe to start it would be as manual as Google Home - scrolling through anything captured by AR glasses and being able to chuck it out. But over time, it'd be great to see some level of automation here e.g. do store anything captured when my calendar says I was in an important meeting, don't store anything from when I'm in my flat cooking dinner with friends for longer than a day/week/month. You get the idea.
I see you
That's for the wearer, the person potentially recording their entire day. What about the stars of your particular show/stream/feed? Do they get to opt in and out of futuristic features like face recognition tied to social networks, for instance? When AR glasses look exactly like regular glasses, which we're getting closer and closer to, will that be even more annoying? This will bring new etiquette problems along with it.
"With some AR glasses, it's also the question of what people can access about you," says Amandine Flachs. "I have a friend who said in a post: 'I don't want someone to look at me on the street and know my name and information about me.' So could you access someone's Facebook profile just by looking at them? It's a bit weird, right? But then if you opt out, that means you're out of the circle, then you're not a nice, open person."
Everyone working in AR - the device makers, the people building the platform - needs to get involved too to give the tech its best shot at round two with the wider public.
As Dalton puts it: "To exempt any single party from responsibility would be a mistake. All stakeholders have a part to play in ensuring that privacy policies are developed, evolved and respected. This is how we can establish trust in the industry and ultimately with the consumers and companies that will buy these products."
This next gen of AR is all about blurring the lines between the real world and virtual worlds but the tech companies need to know who is in charge of our actual, physical, pinch-me lives: us, of course.
Har Mar SuperstARs
- Google's super cool AR project at I/OWhen this is on our glasses… oh boy
- Meet Apple's AR dream teamThe engineers, execs and researchers building Apple's secret AR tech
- Facebook: AR glasses mainstream by 2022Zuck sends his chief scientist out for some expectation control
- Microsoft's prototype AR glasses revealedDropping the headset for the everyday look