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Yesterday, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made a big deal out of ‘turning every camera into an augmented reality device’. That’s a bit of an overstatement — smartphones have been augmented reality devices since the advent of the iPhone 3GS in 2009 — but the deep integration of SLAM (simultaneous location and mapping) software creates an experience (as far as we can tell from the demos) that seems very smooth and slick. Point the phone at a surface, and it can “place” items onto that surface — even occluding the appearance of virtual objects as they slip ‘behind’ objects in the real world.
At around fourteen and a half minutes in, Zuckerberg — clearly swept up in the majesty of this innovation — shows how it can be used for art. Have a watch of about a minute of this video: [ go on, I’ll wait ]
These surfaces have been ‘painted’ by artists working in augmented reality in such a way that they can be ‘viewed’ through the smartphone of anyone using the corresponding Facebook app. Take a blank wall, and turn it into a piece of art. Isn’t that fantastic?
As I write this on the 20th of April — a date which lives in infamy — it seems both necessary and provident to point out that this capacity to augment any surface in the real world with virtual ‘graffiti’ opens the door to almost uncountable forms of abuse.
In the most obvious case — and forgive me for going here, but these things must be said aloud to prevent them becoming real — someone could easily desecrate a synagogue or graveyard. Or signify the residence of a political opponent. Or simply incite to hatred, ignorance and violence — on the side of a public building.
Your first thought may be, “But this is in augmented reality, so it isn’t really real.” But that’s not really true. If you make up something that only you yourself can see, no one else will be the wiser. But as soon as you share that thing — and Facebook’s raison d’être is sharing — it becomes consensus reality for you and your social graph.
That’s the transition point between private thought and public act.
If this concept seems weird and unfamiliar, that’s because augmented reality is quite new and mostly unexplored. It’s only when these tools become available to billions — as they now are — that we can take the full measure of how they interact with individuals and ideologies that — unlike Facebook — may not be focused on the gathering and monetisation of consumer data.
With more than a billion users, Facebook only needs the bad actors to be ‘one in a million’ to have a lot of problems on their hand. Because of the way social media works, as soon as there’s one incident, it will be shared widely. Then the penny will drop, and suddenly Facebook will have millions of malefactors — again, that’s just one in a thousand of their users — using augmented reality in ways its creators never intended.
We’ve been here before. Pokemon Go overlaid the real world with an augmented reality game — then quickly ran into trouble as players transgressed the rules of the real world, because the game encouraged them to do so — or at least put no barriers in their way.
There is a right way to deal with this: we need to permission augmented reality along lines consistent with the real world. In the real world you can not simply spray buildings with graffiti, or paste posters on any bare stretch of fence. These are property rights, and they’re held by the owner (or lessor) of the property.
Why should we believe the augmented world is free of the agreed-upon constraints in this aspect? In the public sphere — that is, the sphere of shared knowledge, and the particular domain of Facebook — augmented reality can not simply kick over the traces of the real. Or rather, if it does, then everyone will find themselves kicked hard by this — and, most particularly, Facebook.
Imagine the lawsuits when a brand finds a huge, nasty inversion of their logo floating in the skies above a megalopolis. Imagine the terror when an LGBTI person in a conservative community finds a flaming arrow pointing down from the heavens, toward their home. Imagine the dirty tricks and lies and fake news.
We’ve been down this road, and we know enough now to avoid it.
We can not let our genuine enthusiasm for the new blind us to the fact that wherever we go in this new, augmented world, we bring ourselves — both light and shadow.
I’ve been quite clear that the most obvious use case for Mixed Reality Service (MRS) is as a permissioning system for augmented and mixed realities. MRS will act as title registry, granting or denying capacities to augmented reality applications and users.
The case for MRS was already clear. Now Facebook has made the immediate need for MRS a matter of vital importance: Without MRS (or something very much like it) people will get hurt.