“They weren’t just playing a game; they were experiencing augmented reality.”
That’s how North Dakota Senator and Committee Chairman John Thune summarized the experience of Pokemon Go players in remarks that opened Congress’ first hearing on augmented reality Wednesday. And it was an apt summary of the hearing itself. Before hearing testimony from five witnesses, the committee members got a chance to experience several AR applications for themselves, including Daqri Smart Helmet, augmented heads-up displays for drivers, and more. The members’ fascination with the experience showed in their remarks, which were almost wholly devoid of skepticism. To the contrary, Senator Thune repeatedly praised AR’s potential, stressed the need for its continued development, and warned of the perils of government regulating the space too soon. Senator Steve Daines of Montana, himself a software entrepreneur, said he “doesn’t doubt at all” that AR is one of the greatest ways to boost driver safety, and speculated at some length about it could help rural truckers avoid elk and other obstacles. The phrase “billions of dollars” was used more than once to measure AR’s economic potential in the very near future. Multiple members quizzed the witnesses on AR’s potential to create jobs, and all seemed to like what they heard.
As the CEO of Daqri, Brian Mullins was the only one of the five witnesses who spoke form experience about the use of AR in business and industry. His theme was that AR can revitalize the American workforce by making individual workers more efficient, vastly decreasing the cost and time required to train and educate them, and increasing their job satisfaction. A 2015 study by Boeing and Iowa State University supports these conclusions, as does the experience of employees at General Electric, Boeing, Intel, Huntington Ingalls, and many other industry-leading companies. From complex tasks like aerospace manufacturing to such basic skills as welding, AR all but eliminates the friction in transferring knowledge to an individual worker.
John Hanke, CEO of Niantic, also spoke from first-hand experience, albeit in the quite different context of creating and distributing the Pokemon Go mobile app. (Although it’s debatable whether Pokemon Go actually belongs in a conversation about AR as such, it is an undeniable success in location-based gaming–and you have to hand it to the game for finally embedding the term “augmented reality” in the public consciousness.) Hanke ably advocated for AR’s potential to get users off their couches and out into the real world, where they can experience real social interaction instead of social media, and learn about the world around them.
Hanke also made a compelling plea to the Committee for help in repelling hackers around the globe who are constantly out to misuse and interfere with the software. More than once, he described the current online media market as “a Wild West without a sheriff,” and quite fairly complained about the unfairness of expecting small startups to fend off both malicious hackers and regulators from conflicting legal jurisdictions across the globe. This drew sympathy from members such as Michigan Senator Gary Peters, an advocate for cybersecurity, and Internet of Things aficionado Cory Booker of New Jersey, as well as insightful questions about the potential for bad actors to create dangerous content within advanced AR environments. The specific example used was of a hacker infiltrating a pilot’s navigational AR system to create the false appearance that a flock of birds was ahead, presumably causing the plane to take unnecessary evasive action. The plausibility of this hypothetical highlighted the fact that the consequences of poor data security will continue to grow as we become increasingly reliant on digital environments.
Brian Blau from Gartner summarized his company’s predictions for the growth of AR markets. He confirmed what has become conventional wisdom within the industry: namely, that the earliest adopters will be in enterprise; that there is significant potential for the number of AR devices to grow from today’s hundreds of thousands to several million in just a few years; that the potential use cases for both business and consumers are compelling and will drive growth; but that the technology’s progress could falter if regulators step in too early and don’t allow developers to fully test their ideas.
The two lawyers on the panel sounded important warnings as well. Stanley Pierre-Louis, general counsel of the Entertainment Software Association, echoed the plea to Congress not to overzealously regulate the space, reminding the Committee of the Supreme Court’s recent confirmation that video games deserve full First Amendment protection. Professor Ryan Calo of UW’s Tech Policy Lab summarized his lab’s concise white paper on the “promise and perils of AR.” The paper covers topics familiar to readers of Augmented Legality and Augmented Reality Law, Privacy, and Ethics, including digital assault, invasion of privacy, free speech, copyright infringement, and negligence. Responding to a question on how to preserve America’s lead in AR, Calo also contributed a valid point about the importance of “safe harbor” laws like Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which was meant to shield ISPs from most liability for user-generated content. Similar legal provisions for the augmented medium will promote continued innovation.
Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut picked up on the potential for physical injury as well, providing the lone moment of confrontation in the hearing. He grilled John Hanke for a few minutes on why Niantic allowed users to play Pokemon Go while moving. Hanke rightly observed that Niantic had added features limiting (if not completely disabling) game features at faster-than-walking speeds in order to deter driving while playing. Unsatisfied with that answer and intent on channeling Ralph Nader, Blumenthal pressed the point further and found a way to ask more than once why Pokemon Go isn’t “unsafe at any speed.” Hanke eventually confessed disagreement, noting that users retain some personal responsibility for their own safety, and that the idea of preventing users from moving at all while playing the game “feels like a step too far to me.”
In true Congressional fashion, although the hearing ended after about an hour, it’s not really over. Senator Thune made a point of “keeping the record open” for an additional two weeks, to allow the several members who didn’t show up to the hearing a chance to submit their questions in writing. The witnesses will be expected to answer these questions “promptly.” So, the (asynchronous) conversation may yet continue to get even more interesting.
In short, it was a good day for AR. Let’s just hope the rest of Congress shares this Committee’s appreciation of AR technology and its sense of restraint in exercising their power to regulate it.