Augmented & Virtual Reality: Redefining “Place.”
By Beenish Khan
The objective of this paper is to explore the emergent technologies of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR), chiefly by examining how they are redefining ‘place’ as something that transcends both social and spatial constructs, epitomizing globalization in all its interchangeable, free-floating networks and its celebration of creative interstitial spaces. Of particular interest are the blessings and anti-blessings accompanying this phenomenon, as well as the ethical, social and legal ambivalences that may arise – and in some instances have already arisen – as VR/AR usage becomes more commonplace. Ultimately, this paper is interested in contriving a workable policy, wherein the utopianized digital community exemplified by VR/AR can be preserved, while also acknowledging that the overlap between the virtual and corporeal world necessitates certain safeguards to ensure that human rights are respected. Ultimately, as the real world is increasingly besieged by corporatism and paternalistic government regulation, the fluid and unregulated nature of cyberspace should represent the closest manifestation of freedom – yet kept within a framework that reminds its users that decenteredness should not be conflated with disorder.
With the burgeoning digital revolution, we are developing new grids of social habits that are continuously redefining our culture itself – from the scale and style in which we interact with one another, to our increasingly-lax attitudes toward privacy and exposure, to how we regard technology as the engine rather than the vehicle that facilitates our intimacies, our pleasures, our identities, even our realities.
Within this uncharted technological frontier, the nascent marvels of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) offer the seductive promise of further redefining ‘place’ as something that transcends both social and spatial constructs, epitomizing a new facet of globalization in all its interchangeable, free-floating networks and its celebration of creative interstitial spaces. From the Facebook-sponsored Oculus Rift, to Microsoft’s HoloLens, to thrilling games such as Battlezone, The Climb, and the popular Pokemon Go!, consumers can enjoy immersive, near-flawlessly realistic adventures with friends and strangers alike, all from the comfort of their present geographic locations. Meanwhile, tech-savvy businesses – as well as educational, legal, and military arenas – are increasingly likely to find themselves in the grip of a fantastic revolution as their modes of interaction and input are streamlined, hybridized and multiplied be it through new possibilities for workplace training, to a breathtaking new scope of connections as employees and customers worldwide are able to interact with each other along protean channels.
For the interest of clarification, it should be noted that virtual reality refers to the replacement of the real, physical world by one that is simulated, with varying degrees of stimuli, i.e. sound, sight. Augmented reality, in contrast, offers a direct or indirect glimpse into a physical environment, in real-time, with certain facets enhanced or personalized by computer-based sensory input. However, since both technologies so closely complement one another in their purpose to enrich the user’s experience, this paper will examine their pros and cons, and accompanying policy measures, in tandem.
For their advocates, both VR and AR embody the technological revolution at its most sublime: a means to both enhance and, if our whim dictates, to alter the nature of reality to suit ourselves, not merely for self-indulgent entertainment, but as a means for accessing and sharing viable information in real-time, regardless of where we physically are. For its naysayers, however, VR and AR represent potent social and legal dangers. Caught in the whirl of a globalized storm that is emphatically technology-based and technology-oriented, our conceptions of both reality and the self – and our resultant social behaviors – are slowly being redefined from concrete boundaries to an imaginary construct that is respected by tacit presumption rather than ironclad laws. Yet far from disquieting us, this fact seems to be met with varying levels of acceptance and indifference. Tangled within a wired world that lauds us for acts of public disclosure and willing self-erasure – be they divisive political Facebook posts or reviews of intimate products we have purchased or hours spent in virtual communities in the guise of avatars that are more attractive simply because they are nothing like us – we do not pause to consider how institutions with less-than-benign intentions may profit from our detachment and exposure.
To be sure, both the merits and demerits of VR/AR are worth considering, the better to both comprehend and define the dimensions of our future global landscape. There is no denying that as interaction – both social and commercial – grows more decentralized, virtual and augmented realities become the perfect architects for enabling globalization. Whether by allowing certain individuals to live fully networked lives where they might find happiness (or its closest substitute) beyond physical reality and in the digital realm, to offering employees in both small and large businesses flexible schedules, affordable means of arranging meetings and time-efficient ways to interact with customers, there is no denying that such emergent technologies may remediate the very definitions of ‘closeness,’ even as they allow us to reimagine a future where social relations have been either de-stratified, or simply re-stratified, along new socioeconomic boundaries.
The pivotal issue, given the unstable and unpredictable nature of these fledgling technologies, is whether their risks will outweigh their rewards. For all that the digital revolution has supposedly democratized the spread of information – whether it is easy access to trivia to free training and educational programs – it has also eroded the definitions of privacy. For instance, the company Oculus, producer of VR headsets, has recently come under fire after it was discovered that it collected information about its users’ location and physical movements. This is made worse by the revelation that it was tracking their eye-movements, for the purpose of logging what stimuli interested them, the better for advertisers to cater to their particular needs (Korolov 1).
This type of surveillance proves unsettlingly insidious when one realizes how close such corporations are coming to reading our thoughts, based on each individual thread of information woven together – or that said information can become available to governments, or worse, misused by hackers. We have already become acclimatized – through blogs, tweets, snapchats, selfies – to a world that enjoins us to produce ourselves for the judgement of others. We are already monitored in both public and private spheres by technologies that track our movements, our browsing habits, the frequency and nature of our communications with friends and family. At every level, we are implicitly and explicitly exhorted to share our innermost thoughts and feelings, from reviews of products we’ve purchased, to opinions on books we’ve read, to rating restaurants we have dined at.
Yet, to be caught within the gears of a system that pressures us to be as transparent and self-revelatory as possible, the better for algorithms to cater to our needs – or, on the darker flipside, to attempt to read our minds – is nothing short of an Orwellian nightmare. The danger of any budding technology is its propensity to graduate from novelty, to either aggrandized cure-all or curse, to a mere foundational tool, by all rights invisible yet omnipresent. Yet, when examining virtual realities, it is essential to understand how our acceptance to ever-intensifying erosions of privacy can be exploited for political or financial gain. Essential too, is acknowledging how the human drive for validation, satisfied through constant online exposure, rewires our social habits to the point where we may no longer appear to recognize the imperatives of privacy as essential to developing and nurturing an inner self, as opposed to a surface being.
Leaving aside the social and ethical ramifications, there are also legal ambiguities to consider. For instance, both copyright infringement and fair use debates are already arising, given that the very nature of VR/AR is so fundamentally different from conventional computer software and videogames. For instance, virtual possessions and events are mere simulations of their real-life counterparts. Concurrently, they are also subject to the personal tweaks and modifications, within an ever-changing and unstable environment that alters according to each session. With these details in mind, are they subject to the same copyright protections that are available in real life – or must new laws be contrived to address these particular challenges? A significant Supreme Court ruling, Feist Publications Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co.,499 U.S. 340 (1991), stated that “pure” fact and collections of fact cannot be copyrighted. Therefore, to enjoy copyright protections, a virtual work or item would have to closely mirror reality – a fact that would seem either paradoxical, or inevitable, depending on how seamlessly reality and virtuality begin to enmesh as time goes on.
Threats of a much murkier and uglier nature must also be considered with regards to VR/AR. For instance, would the legality of sexual assault in a VR game warrant the same sanctions and safeguards as in real-life? Recently, creators of the VR-based game QuiVr were swift in their condemnation of a user who sexually assaulted a female player during the gameplay. As developers Aaron Stanton and Jonathan Schenker stated, “If VR has the power to have lasting positive impact because of that realism, the opposite has to be taken seriously as well” (O’Brein 1). While, to skeptics, the attack and its damages would only justify censure if it were of a physical nature, it is imperative to keep in mind that just as virtual realities are catalyzing a shift in how we define and experience our identities, so too will it alter how we perceive the safety or violations towards said identities. These factors can either prove to be game-changers for the legal system, or else the legal structures within the real world may find ways to extend and translate themselves within the virtual world. Either way, despite the rosy and idealistic notions of VR as a utopian realm untarnished by the constraints – legal, social, economic, political – of reality, there is no denying that the two simultaneously feed on and mirror each other as imperfect reflections.
With that in mind, it is only a matter of time before governments will come to play a role in such technologies, ranging from policy-making to censorship. A common argument, proffered by proponents of globalization, is that the phenomenon, surfing the wave of the technological revolution, has erased demarcations between nations, interlinking human beings within a boundless digital ocean. Unfortunately, this is oversimplification at best, and rationalization at worst. Some have argued that the very process of globalization, touted as an organic and leveling process, has in fact been an excuse for particular nations to act as liberators, reformers or stabilizers depending on their rationale. It also draws attention to the fact that government intervention and surveillance is bound to exist – in varying degrees depending on each nation – within the realm of VR/AR. Conversely, the very nature of VR/AR, with its diminishing conceptions of privacy and heightened self-exposure, both encouraged by contrastingly-obscure institutions that claim to have our safety at heart – be it for protecting children from pedophiles or entire nations from terrorists – can give way to a lopsided power dynamic that is open to abuse.
As such, it is essential to craft both an intelligent and flexible policy on VR/AR – as well as to acknowledge that these policies may not be compatible with every country. For the United States, therefore, a policy regarding virtual and augmented realities should be an extension of the Constitutional liberties and safeguards available to citizens and non-citizens in real-life. Given the likelihood that virtuality and reality will only blend inextricably together, the more normalized the former becomes, legislatures will have to focus especially on the sanctity of human rights in both contexts, and in laying out regulations that protect the individual from egregious offenses and abuses. Similarly, the nature of government power and its potential overreach will need to be re-analyzed, as well new conceptions of public versus private property, and where fresh lines must be drawn.
While a set of global, mutually-agreed upon protocols would be an ideal solution, transnationalism is still, in some ways, a fragile and frequently illusory prospect. Not every nation-state may be amenable to a set of overarching regulations, yet, given the attendant dangers that go hand-in-hand with misusing VR/AR, a level of global cooperation should nonetheless be deemed necessary and beneficial. While not every country may make identical allowances toward free speech or the freedom of the press (or, in the contemporary context, the average citizen, who now possesses the means to upload whatever he/she deems relevant on social media websites), it should be necessary for people to protect their images/data/identities from exploitation. Surveillance by third parties should also be restricted, if and when possible – the better to circumvent future interference and subjugation by corporations and governments alike.
To be sure, not all aspects of virtual and augmented realities are so sinister. The growing portal of interconnected information is at once pellucid and murky; a lack of privacy may simultaneously yield greater access to finding people who share identical attitudes and beliefs. Similarly, the distance afforded by virtual interactions could allow people to construct safer versions of intimacy, dictated by their terms alone. Likewise, for all those who decry the popularity of virtual communities and games as merely enabling inorganic addictions, or a pathetic retreat from reality, others may see it as a sanctuary for when life grows too overwhelming, or simply as an exciting enhancement of reality itself. Indeed, it can be argued that impassioned outbursts over how VR/AR will erode our conceptions of everything from love, sex, privacy, self, friends, family, are exaggerations; communication continues to adhere to existing patterns, albeit exercised through different habits and modes.
Whatever the case, it is undeniable that obscurity will soon become that much more difficult to achieve in the emerging era. More to the point, it is an irrefutable truth that VR/AR do not exist in a benign vacuum, but are vehicles powered by user-generated content, and that we as users are exhorted to supply as much of that unfiltered content as possible. This same content can be weaponized against us – for which reason alone it is essential that any policy formulated in the future be rooted in a respect of human rights, with our virtual personas as extensions of our real selves, and vice versa.
The provisions set out in legislatures should be democratic, at least for the United States – and should simultaneously be open-ended enough to accommodate the dynamic changes of the digital realm, while being carefully cognizant of its different layers and spaces, i.e. what might be appropriate in a virtual sex game would by no means be permitted in a VR classroom. All in all, such a policy would be an extremely tall order – but not beyond the realm of possibility. There is no denying that as interaction – both social and commercial – grows more decentralized, virtual and augmented realities become the ideal vehicles for redefining ‘place’ as something that transcends both social and spatial constructs, epitomizing globalization in all its interchangeable, free-floating networks and its celebration of creative interstitial spaces. Yet this is precisely why both institutions of power and ordinary citizens alike have a duty to treat virtual realities as neutral, safeguarded zones, within which we can learn to empower one another, and to express our best selves at their fullest potential.
Feist Publications Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co. 499 U.S. 340. Supreme Court of the United States. 1991. Supreme Court Collection. Legal Information Inst., Cornell U. Law School, n.d. Web. 30 March, 2017.
Korolov, Maria. “The Next Big Threat To Your Privacy Is Playing Out In VR.” Gearbrain, GearBrain Inc, 7 June 2016, www.gearbrain.com/virtual-reality-privacy-consumer-battle-rights-1845199637.html. Accessed 30 Mar. 2017.
O’Brien, Sarah Ashley. “Developer on VR sexual assault: ‘My heart sank’.” CNNMoney, Cable News Network, 26 Oct. 2016, money.cnn.com/2016/10/25/technology/developer-sexual-assault-virtual-reality/. Accessed 30 Mar. 2017.
Beenish Khan is a Rolling Stones fan and a pre-law major – in that order. Having spent a majority of her childhood traveling across the Middle-East, Southeast Asia and the United Kingdom, she is endlessly fascinated with the concepts of fluid identities and global citizenships, and learning how to navigate through diverse cultural spheres. Her interest in law stems from its power to make social dimensions across nations either clearer, or more convoluted – as well as in how the relationships between different laws and societies play out across the globe. In her free time, she enjoys watching classic films of dubious taste, and making ill-advised choices in literature. Thus far, she has tremendously enjoyed her experiences at St. Edwards University, and looks forward to contributing in her small way toward a future of greater diversity and self-awareness.