Local laws threaten the global future of augmented reality
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The intense, if fleeting, popularity of Pokemon Go helped demonstrate the market potential of "augmented reality," as services like Waze, Snapchat, Yelp and even Google Maps increasingly incorporate geolocation data to provide smartphone users real-time information about their physical surroundings. But future innovations in location-based services could be threatened, as state and local lawmakers force developers to wade through a thickening bog of regulatory requirements.

What first attracted scrutiny in the states were public-safety concerns, spurred by reports of Pokemon Go players trespassingcrossing traffic or playing while driving in order to capture the game's fictional creatures. Niantic, the game's maker, responded by removing checkpoints from sensitive locations like the Holocaust Museum and from obviously dangerous locations, such territories with unexploded ordinance like bombs and landmines. They also introduced technical changes to prevent players from using the app while moving at certain speeds.

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Alas, these changes didn’t stop legislators from looking to codify their concerns into law. In response to littering and damage at Chicago's Loyola Dunes Restoration Site, an Illinois state representative introduced “Pidgey’s Law"—named for a Pokemon character—which would fine app developers if they do not remove checkpoints within two days of receiving a complaint. The short turnaround time and the cost of the fines ($100 per-day per-infraction) means developers would have to expend resources to vet every one of their checkpoints; in the case of Pokemon Go, that's more than 4 million worldwide.

 

Pidgey’s Law is still working its way through the Illinois Legislature. If it passes, the predictable result would be a chilling effect on location-based augmented reality apps, as many developers would rather avoid trying to guess which locations the state will find problematic.

Illinois isn’t alone in looking to extend its jurisdiction into augmented reality. The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors last month approved an ordinance requiring companies to obtain the equivalent of an event permit before introducing location-based augmented-reality features that would draw users to local parks. Fees range from $100 to $1,000 and would require developers to estimate how many people are expected to be using the app in the park each day. But, of course, app-based games and services are not at all like planned events. Users determine where and how they want to use their apps. The only thing that would be accomplished by forcing augmented reality companies to ask permission on behalf of their users is ensuring that developers will avoid creating features that might appeal to users in Milwaukee County. 

In New York State, Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, D-Brooklyn, threatened to introduce even tougher legislation that would hold companies like Niantic liable for user safety, citing accounts of distracted Pokemon Go players using the app while driving or while walking in the middles of the street. As mentioned earlier, Niantic already has responded with features that make it more difficult to use the app while driving—which is, of course, already illegal. But while the company would be on solid legal footing to defend against claims of liability, the cost of having to defend such lawsuits would no doubt serve to further chill innovation.

It's also particularly ironic, given that distraction is a genuine problem that augmented reality could one day help to solve. Distraction accounts for around 10 percent of fatal crashes, amounting to 3,179 deaths per year. According to a paper in the American Journal of Public Health, the increase in distracted-driving deaths from 2005 to 2008 is associated with an increased volume of texting while driving. But as augmented reality improves, we increasingly will information incorporated into a heads up display, wearable or smart contact lens, rather than staring down at our phones. Displays on our windshields will help us to identify landmarks, visualize directions with real-time updates or read safety alerts without removing our eyes from the road.

To realize that future, augmented reality developers need to be allowed to experiment to find the most seamless integration that would minimize distraction. Forcing developers to comply with myriad local regulations discourages experimentation and creates significant barriers to entry by new firms. Local efforts like the ones in Illinois and Milwaukee threaten to limit the development of applications that could benefit consumers worldwide.

Anne Hobson is a technology policy fellow and Daniel Oglesby is a research assistant, both with the R Street Institute.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.