Sacred Ground: When (Augmented) Worlds Collide

A few years ago,years ago, a Native American tribe in northern Michigan tried protect a particular piece of land. This land was the site of an impressive rock formation. To the company who owned the mineral rights underneath that land, the rock was the most convenient place to drill an access tunnel to the mine underneath. But to the tribe, it was sacred. Their ancestors had performed religious ceremonies on that particular rock formation for centuries. The culture and beliefs that the tribe held dear required that the ceremonies continue to be held there. To them, this location was irreplaceable, and neither side saw room for compromise.

© flickr user thecombjelly; used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license

© flickr user thecombjelly; used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license

Although augmented uses of physical places are not likely to have the same depth of religious or cultural significance anytime soon, I do expect many analogous disputes to arise as a result of AR, and that some of them will be contested with similar intensity. One of the defining characteristics of AR is its interconnectedness with physical places and things. In addition, AR’s early adopters still constitute a subculture defined by their shared passion for the medium, which reinforces their collective sense of identity. These factors can combine to create intense loyalties to a shared AR experience.

The best example of this phenomenon that I’ve seen to date in the augmented space is the passionate community that has built up around the sci-fi themed Android game Ingress (which just this week became available to iOS users as well). Players’ Google+ posts are constantly updated with comments and developments within the game. “Factions” of players exist all over the world that cross generational, gender, and ethnic boundaries. I’ve heard first-hand tales of how the game’s requirement to get out and physically interact with virtual “objects” has contributed to in-person meet-ups and genuinely enriched human relationships. It is, by all accounts, a vibrant community.

Imagine, then, what would happen if another AR game with a completely different vibe and culture were to superimpose itself over the same physical locations used by Ingress players. (This is actually a realistic possibility, as “the developers of Niantic Labs intend to implement a whole platform for Ingress augmented reality games. Their plan is to use a variety of operating time and the elements to create a series of Ingress API, through which third-party developers can create their own game projects.”) If two overlapping games require participants in a techno-thriller mystery and, say, a Dance Dance Revolution-esque flash mob to show up at the same places, clashes of personality are bound to ensue.

Now multiply that scenario by a dozen, a hundred, or even a thousand. The beauty of AR is that an infinite series of digital experiences can be overlain atop the same physical place, but that will sometimes prove to be its bane as well. Like loquacious moviegoers, the way in which some people enjoy one augmented experience in a place may be inherently disruptive to someone else’s ability to appreciate a different digital experience in the same place.

One solution to this problem will be in the hands of those who own the physical property on which the experience takes place. To varying degrees, they will have the power to prescribe rules of conduct, and to eject those who refuse to follow those rules. If a particular location proves to be a popular locale for augmentation, owners may require all comers to quietly respect all others, or else make it easier for members of a particular group to enjoy their own augmented experiences over others. Of course, unless the owner is also the experience provider, they will expect compensation for their efforts, and will likely coordinate them so as to maximize foot traffic to any businesses located on the property. Before long it may become customary for a parcel of commercial real estate to have both physical and digital developers, and they may not work for the same company.

(c) Martha Soukup / flickr

(c) Martha Soukup / flickr

Ingress and other games tend to locate their digital objects in public places. This brings its own limitations on personal conduct, as well as on the government’s ability to prohibit expression based on its content. Could we soon see a First Amendment lawsuit challenging censorship of augmented activity on public land?

Ultimately, the most effective solution in cases of conflict between different augmented uses of a place will come down to common courtesy. As I’ve explored elsewhere and will do so further in my upcoming book Augmented Reality Law, Privacy and Ethics, though, the basis for such norms will lose some of their “commonality” the more our experiences of the physical world become digitized. At least when two people are together in the same physical place—without digital distractions—they innately recognize on some level the concept of shared experience and, hopefully, responsibility. That both will suffer if one person does something destructive to the shared space, and conversely that respecting the other person’s interests will likely lead them to reciprocate.

We lose some of that sense when our attention is given over to a digital world that is ours alone to control and experience. This phenomenon is already evident with mobile phones and game consoles, so we can expect it to multiply when groups of people are competing to digitize the same space. This does not mean that civility is impossible, but it does mean that acting civilly will become more of a conscious choice and less of an instinct.

 

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