The ‘terms and conditions’ of augmented and mixed reality

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The ‘terms and conditions’ of augmented and mixed reality

The phrase, “terms and conditions” may not mean much to you (besides maybe a twinge of guilt for not reading them), but technology has wormed its way into our lives so deeply that security and privacy issues should be at the forefront of our worries. 

During a summit held by UW computer science professors Franziska Roesner and Tadayoshi Kohno last September, experts in the field of virtual and mixed reality discussed how to maximize the benefits of augmented reality while mitigating the security and safety risks.

Augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) has the potential to elevate our experience with technology in a way that is completely immersive and revolutionary. The summit kicked off its meeting with a discussion of potential benefits and concerns of an altered reality. 

The pros list included both desirable functionalities as well as ethical security and safety, while the cons list spanned some 12 major concerns including physical harm, multi-user challenges, advertising issues, and even “broader societal impacts” that could result from the normalization and broad reach of AR. 

Of key concern was the importance of being as proactive as possible, with events such as the summit exemplifying how to handle the future of augmented reality sooner rather than later. Attendees brought up the conception of the internet, and how an unplanned, albeit unexpected growth period resulted in complicated security issues that still pervade us today. 

Another concern centered around using appropriate levels of advertising in virtual reality spaces. As we have seen with the internet, advertising is a way for developers to monetize their projects and make a career out of their hobby. Blair MacIntyre, a professor at Georgia Tech and a security and privacy expert at Mozilla, brought up how valuable advertising can be for some companies, with the caveat of risking user privacy.

“Google didn’t start out trying to do nefarious things,” MacIntyre said. “They’re like, ‘We want to do good search, and we can offer more value to advertisers if we can tell them about it.’ But once you start becoming more invasive, you run the risk of crossing a line at some point.” 

As MacIntyre explained, the key to accurate and successful advertising is to data mine the preferences of an individual, which AR has the ability to do.

“Applications can litter the environment with images,” MacIntyre said. “They can tell what you’re looking at and how long you look at it. From that, they can tell all kinds of things: sexual orientations to political leanings, to any kind of preferences or interests.” 

Additionally, AR and MR devices create landscapes by overlaying digital images on top of a physical environment, which presents unique challenges. At the summit, participants identified certain concerns they had about what could go wrong and how they should consider these issues moving forward.

“For example, can I put virtual graffiti on your house?” Roesner said. “If I can, that might really bother you even if you can't even see it, but know that others can. If I can't, then this infringes on my ability to use my device the way I want.”

With the multimodal and multi-user aspect of AR, app developers have many things to keep in mind when creating their platforms. There is little to no legislation on the topic to guide them due to the novel state of AR, but Roesner and other researchers made it a point that they should not prescribe certain solutions yet.

“Our goal with the report is to surface these complex questions and guide technology designers to think about them, so that they are making conscious tradeoffs between these various goals/values/stakeholders in their designs, rather than accidental ones,” Roesner said in an email.

Despite all the worries about security and privacy as it relates to AR, many developers and experts in the field are eager to see the applications of these devices, especially with the recent turn to technology to run our daily interactions in the time of COVID-19. MacIntyre spoke about the potential of AR to truly alter our day-to-day experiences and even eradicate social barriers that exist for some of us, ending the conversation on a lighter note.

“In VR, you get to choose your avatar,” MacIntyre said. “You get to present yourself the way you want without having to worry about what you actually look like, which includes being tall or short or whatever you want.”

Reach contributing writer Phoebe Harris at Twitter: @phoebemh

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