Regulating AR and VR is the key to protecting users

virtual reality laws

Pokémon Go gave the world its first blockbuster augmented reality (AR) success. It also gave most players their first interaction with a digital world layered on top of the “real” world.

By comparison, virtual reality (VR) is more like the Matrix: the user is isolated in an individual experience, tricking the brain into thinking what is being seen and experienced is real and true despite the user knowing, on some level, the entire world in front of them is projected within a headset.

Disrupting reality

These are undoubtedly exciting times for both modes of technology and for users ready to dive into the next big thing. VR and AR are believed by most tech experts to be a potentially disruptive force to society in the same way TV and the internet drastically changed the world – but with these great changes will come landmark shifts in the law as well.

During the Pokémon Go craze, the game’s developer quickly had to make changes after players went into places like hospitals and the Holocaust Museum looking for creatures. The Illinois state government considered a law that would require any virtual or augmented reality using state-owned or operated locations, like parks, to apply for a permit. They even asked AR and VR companies to estimate the number of people who would be participating on their mobile devices in order to secure permission.

Developers might be quick to shrug their shoulders, saying that they cannot be held responsible for how their technology and their virtual world is used, or for what purposes. Other experts and developers already are bucking that trend, urging their associates to consider ways in which a “bad actor” might try to take advantage of technical anonymity and work to build in safeguards to keep players out of harm’s way.

There are questions of copyright, patent, intellectual property and trademark laws as well: Does a developer have all the eligible rights secured for a virtual world if a game is adapted from a song, play, book, etc? This is all yet to be determined but, given the lawsuits currently faced by Fortnite for “copying” dance moves made famous by other public figures, this is an inevitability.

Technology always moves and adapts faster than laws can respond – it was true for the internet; it’s doubly true now.

There will be legal quagmires, of course.

A few years ago, a woman attempted to file a lawsuit after she was virtually groped in a game. Her argument was based on the fact that, because the brain feels that the world inside a VR headset is real, the attempted groping caused the same stress and anxiety it would in the “real world.” Because there was no physical touching, the offender couldn’t be prosecuted for sexual battery, but that doesn’t mean more nuanced laws won’t be developed as the use of VR and AR continues to spread.

If laws did exist to protect players, it would likely be an inter-jurisdictional mess: player one in one town or country, player two potentially half a world away.

Possibly the biggest question will be privacy concerns. The UK has enacted a marvel of privacy laws, allowing people to have, by default, more control over their personal data. This law, the General Data Protection Regulation, strictly governs how personal data can be used, when and how it is collected and what individuals can do if their privacy is infringed upon. There’s an effort to develop a similar law in the U.S. but the general consensus, at least at this point, is that it’s a non-starter in the States.

Users of VR and AR applications may also be subjected to various terms and conditions that they don’t take the time to review and understand before accepting, just like with social media platforms. As a result, putting on a headset or picking up a phone with an open app could have users unknowingly giving away their rights to privacy or ways to protect their personal data, because they’d be interacting with a world that can pick up on what the user is seeing. Can those terms and conditions be challenged in court? Maybe, but the laws don’t exist yet.

Technology always moves and adapts faster than laws can respond – it was true for the internet; it’s doubly true now. Look for the same reactionary approach as VR and AR expand their digital footprints in the next few years.

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