Augmented reality law

IT lawyers are always looking for the Next Big Legal Thing (and they also like grandiose generalizations, but I digress).  From ebooks to iPods, you can always find an article describing the latest gadget in legal terms. For people involved in this area of law, it is always important to develop a keen sense of cool-hunting and future-gazing. You may think that the great legal breakthrough technology of 2012 is 3D printing, but I disagree. I think that 3D printing is still too expensive and too small a niche that it will not make legal waves at least for another couple of years (stay tuned however, it could become huge). If anyone were to ask my opinion, which I note they have not, I would say that the Next Big Thing is augmented reality.

For those unfamiliar with the term, augmented reality can be defined as over-imposing layers of information to a digital visual display in real time. This is already possible with smart phone applications such as Layar and Wikitude, and even social media like 4Square are beginning to take advantage of the technology. The growing widespread of augmented reality allows you to exercise while being chased by zombies, or to check where is the closest pizza place. Layers are often limited to the amount of information people input. For example, right now both my applications are missing lots of restaurants in my vicinity, but thanks to, I now know the best places where to make love around me. Crowdsourced sex ftw.

All of the above is a limited implementation of the technology, with few legal issues of interest with exception of the obvious privacy breach potential. So-called stalker apps are already a worrisome development, and with fuller and more immersive augmented reality, the potential for privacy abuses grows. However, what is really pushing augmented reality is Google’s Project Glass (video introductions here and here). I have to admit that I am very excited by it, and that I would definitely be an early adopter of the technology if the price is acceptable. The potential to have information seamlessly integrated into reality is the stuff of science fiction, and would make up for not having a jetpack yet. True, this would mean that I would only be sending more raw advertising data to Google, but heck, who cares when you get to use futuristic glasses?

Besides privacy, the main legal issue that I guess will be of concern is actually intellectual property. When people are able to over-impose layers to reality beyond the clunky smart-phone camera, there will be quite a lot of potential for copyright infringement. Similarly, there will be new commercial opportunities for content owners, imagine if you could turn our world into World of Warcraft, or superimpose the Wizard and Muggle worlds next to each other. Imagine if you could bring your avatar to the real world and allow anyone with the adequate glasses to see your virtual persona. Who owns that content becomes a truly important commercial question. Moreover, ownership of datasets will also play an important part of the new world, and the licensing agreements of those datasets will have to be re-examined. Interestingly, there is also going to be a lot of interfaces between datasets, so API regulation will be vital for businesses wanting to use other people’s applications and services. This makes Oracle v Google an even more vital decision than anyone could foresee.

If you ever get your Google Glasses and see a llama walking down the street, don’t hesitate to say hi.