Yesterday afternoon, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation met with representatives from the world of augmented reality for the first Congressional hearing on the industry. That included general counsel from the Entertainment Software Association; the CEO of AR helmet company Daqri; and John Hanke, CEO of Niantic — the company behind this summer’s massive hit game Pokémon Go.
Depending on how you define it, augmented reality has implications for everything from privacy to distracted driving. But while senators expressed some criticism, they were also clearly interested in how AR could expand the economy and solve various social woes. The answers participants gave may not be surprising to most people who follow the industry, but the questions show us how Congress might regulate — or not regulate — a technology that’s by turns exciting, baffling, and creepy. Here are a few of the most relevant ones.
Will hackers edit our reality?
Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) asked a very specific version of this question: if an airplane pilot is using augmented reality, “could a hacker make a digital flock of birds ... as if it were flying through the windshield of the airplane? And what can we do about that?”
“I think as the technology gets better the simple answer is — yes, we could make virtual objects that are indistinguishable from the real world,” responded Daqri CEO Brian Mullins. “There will certainly be new opportunities with augmented reality for exploitation by bad actors, as there is with any new technology.”
Ryan Calo, assistant professor of law at the University of Washington, gave a less extreme present-day example: a colleague who cracked his phone when a mobile ad showed an extremely realistic spider. And at the simplest level, all a malicious heads-up display hack would need to do is obscure your vision, regardless of how realistic the obstacle was.
Having someone take over your literal field of vision feels more intimate than the usual hack, which could potentially make it a poster child for heightened cybersecurity measures — Gary Peters (D-MI) brought up his Small Business Cybersecurity Improvements Act in another question. Cybersecurity panic is often bad for privacy, but Calo noted that it could also put more weight behind efforts to fix problems that researchers face, including laws like the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the DMCA’s anti-circumvention section — both of which can potentially criminalize trying to find the weak points in systems.
How will augmented reality create jobs?
This question was asked in a few different forms, with particular attention paid to rural communities and vocational training. “In what ways might this encourage some guy that wants to be a welder?” Roger Wicker (R-MS) asked, referring to Daqri’s smart helmet. “Very complex tasks can be broken down and shown visually, so that they're much easier to comprehend to understand,” explained Mullins. “It allows workers to put on a device like the smart helmet and be able to perform a task, even work in a job that they don't have any prior experience with.”
Mullins framed this as a way for workers in areas that “may not be relevant anymore” to enter new fields quickly, without retraining. But although the issue wasn’t raised at the hearing, this could also contribute to de-skilling, making individual workers more replaceable and less valuable.
ESA general counsel Stanley Pierre-Louis, though, talked about using tools like the Microsoft HoloLens to create education programs for fields like nursing and construction, or to close the gap between remote communities and urban hubs. “What we're seeing with augmented reality and mixed reality is an ability to train from afar, communicate from afar, and collaborate from afar,” he said, echoing Holographic OS concept videos we’ve seen from Microsoft.
Will there be an augmented reality digital divide?
At one point during the hearing, John Hanke made a sobering admission: he can’t play his own games when he returns to his childhood home in rural Texas for holidays, because mobile data speeds are too low. “I have this continuing concern about the fact that we do not have a level playing field in terms of access to the internet right now,” said Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) — a problem that could undermine AR’s overall economic benefits.
The Federal Communications Commission pushed rural broadband access forward under President Barack Obama, and the White House launched a new initiative to further expand it in early 2016. But overall, it’s not clear how the FCC will fare under President-elect Donald Trump.
“I certainly am empathetic to the youth growing up in my hometown,” said Hanke. “I would like for them to discover and be inspired by opportunities that will lead them to a happy and prosperous future. And a lot of those opportunities now are coming through that [internet] pipe, so if government can broaden it, that strikes me as a very good thing for the government to put its weight behind.”
Is Pokémon Go “unsafe at any speed?”
Far more so than at many tech hearings, the Senate audience was broadly sympathetic to augmented reality, and asked about expanding it in novel ways — Steve Daines (R-MT), for instance, asked how assisted driving systems could be tailored for rural areas where environmental hazards were a bigger problem than other cars.
But that all changed in the last five minutes, when Hanke mentioned that Pokémon Go stops people from playing if it detects motion faster than a human jog. Unfortunately, Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) decided that this meant Niantic condoned people playing while driving very, very slowly.
“Why is not the use of Pokémon Go unsafe at any speed?”
Hanke gave a quick, blank stare and a drawn-out sound of apprehensive confusion. “Uh, well it is safe when you're walking,” he said. “It's an activity that we encourage.” And there’s no common phone feature, he pointed out, that can definitively detect whether someone is actively driving a vehicle.
“Why isn't that possible?” Blumenthal shot back, after a little more clarification. “And why shouldn't you then just say, anybody who's moving is putting themselves or somebody else at risk, and until we figure out a way to detect the difference between somebody walking, jogging, driving, any speed will in effect deactivate this program?”
It’s fairly clear that Blumenthal didn’t realize Pokémon Go is a game based almost entirely around walking, and that he was more or less proposing to shut down the app over a fairly niche scenario. But I will continue to savor the image of Pokémon Go as a public menace akin to deathtrap ‘60s cars — and hey, he’s not totally wrong.