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Three Unexpected Dangers of Augmented Reality

Augmented Reality is a hot, hot topic at the moment (which means we've written about it twice today), and promises to revolutionize how you seek local information from your smartphone. But in the years ahead, once it's gone mainstream, you'll begin to hear about the dangers of this augmented version of reality. Here are three obvious problems that we see on the horizon:

When Augmented Reality Distracts You From Real Reality

Check out the clip below—it's for an Android phone AR app for, and its designed for commuters on Toronto's busy road network. It's designed to help you beat traffic jams up ahead on your chosen route...which all sounds very sensible.

But does any of that strike you as dangerous? The idea of an app that predicts where you're going and tells you if there's traffic ahead is probably useful, and some of its hands-free design is neat. But displaying the relevant traffic-monitoring cam feeds real time as you drive is just dangerous. It really requires you to direct your attention at your phone to discern if the traffic looks bad, when you're supposed to be giving your attention to the road ahead so you don't crash. Forget the dangers of SMSing while driving—this is just too hands-on, and too risky. If the app had a built-in image processing sensor that worked out how badly the traffic was flowing up ahead of you, then that'd be okay. But there are other ways that data can be acquired, and smartphone navigation software makers are pretty soon going to be baking that into their turn-by-turn apps too.

Similarly, think of the dangers of blindly following a compass-based AR navigation app that's directing you to the nearest subway—someone, somewhere is going to walk right out into traffic because they're distracted by AR.

The Theft Issue

AR apps that metatag the real world through the viewfinder of a smartphone's camera are very neat, and they'll be terribly useful for tourists in new cities. But smartphones are also expensive and desirable things, and there's already a well known history of muggers targeting iPod users (similarly expensive and desirable things) whose owners give away the fact they've got an iPod in their pocket thanks to the distinctive headphones. And when you're using an AR app on your iPhone you have to hold it up in front of you in plain view. With your attention glued to its screen, to use it in viewfinder mode. Sounds like a mugger magnet, coming soon to a tourist hotspot near you.

Augmented Reality on iPhone

The Privacy Issue

Twitter's about to add the ability to place geolocating tags on every Tweet you publish. It's an opt-in system, for safety, but there are a couple of privacy issues that it may be easy to forget about that relate to AR. It could start with something like a Tweet along the lines of "Sitting near the weirdest looking guy wearing the dumbest red coat in a cafe." That's not very nice, and reveals you to be a judgmental type, but people do Tweet about all sorts of things. What if that Tweet is geotagged, and the very same guy sitting near you happens to be using a nearby Tweep-locating AR app like an enhanced Twitaround or Layar? And then he gets angry, and comes to vent his anger at you?

That scenario is pretty unlikely, but soon it won't be just Twitter that lets you geotag your online data—everything will, from plain old social networking to virtual metatags to AR gaming. And with the rise of AR apps, combined with geotagging, there are going to be moments when you either reveal who you are, or where you are at exactly the most inopportune instant. And something will go wrong.

This just illustrates that soon you're going to have to think about protecting your geotagging, along with your other online data.

These are just three ideas we've dreamed up, but there are probably a lot more that will reveal themselves as AR goes mainstream. You might even be able to think of some right now—feel free to share them in the comments. We're not trying to raise a panic here, and we do actually love the idea of Augmented Reality—it's going to be a fabulous new tech. It's just that, as with any new tech, perhaps we ought to be a little cautious about the unexpected negative spin-offs it may have.

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  • Aaron Cole

    AR is going to add some new hurdles for us to overcome. Unfortunately for driving I don't believe we'll have a solution until we come up with AR goggles and/or auto driving cars. Until then AR is going to have a bigger impact on pedestrians then drivers. Maybe it'll encourage people here in the US to use public transportation.

    As for pedestrians not paying attention to where their walking, the software could be designed with a warning indicator. When they get too close to the curb or track the phone could flash "WARNING" on the screen or maybe the screen would flash. Although I think it'd be too expensive to have some sort of sensor built into the curbs or near tracks, perhaps if the software had some sort of image recognition identifier we could paint unique patterns on the ground. It would need to be something obvious and easy for the camera to pick up. As soon as the camera picks up the image it flashes a warning to the viewer.
    Although theft will always be an issue cell companies could offer a service that backs up everything on the cell, essentially a clone and if the phone is stolen then the company could send a signal to the phone essentially locking it up and turning it into a brick. Of course, how do you call the cell company if your phone is stolen?
    It seems to me that younger generations care less and less about privacy. I site MySpace as an example. In order for us to fully take advantage of AR we may need to give up at least some of that privacy. This will be most difficult for older generations. We’ll need to choose our level of usability and the need to feel protected, per individual choice.
    “When Augmented Reality Distracts You From Real Reality”
    I understand the need for this title but, I believe we need to look at the merging of digital and bio as both a form of reality and this emerging technology as combination of the two. I find myself now wanting to withdraw the word virtual (as in fake). Digital is real, its only distinction being that it isn’t biologic.

  • Allen Laudenslager

    Before someone yells "a heads up display for the iPHone", it takes the military a lot of time to train pilots to look out past the HUD. With driving, you'd just throw on the HUD and take off! Just as dangerous as trying to look at the phone screen.

  • Allen Laudenslager

    Before someone yells "a heads up display for the iPHone", it takes the military a lot of time to train pilots to look out past the HUD. With driving, you'd just throw on the HUD and take off! Just as dangerous as trying to look at the phone screen.

  • Kit Eaton

    @Steven, Chris. I agree -- we'll certainly deal with the problems as they arise. The theft issue may well be a thorny one however, since smartphones tend to contain more personal data than your ipod/camera, and the implications of loss are bigger.

  • Chris Hyacinthe

    I feel like the theft issue could be applied to any situation where you take out your electronic device period. You could be mugged listening to music, taking a picture with your camera, etc.

    We'll deal with the issue as they come along.

    Chris Hyacinthe

  • Allen Laudenslager

    Before someone yells "a heads up display for the iPHone", it takes the military a lot of time to train pilots to look out past the HUD. With driving, you'd just throw on the HUD and take off! Just as dangerous as trying to look at the phone screen.

  • Steven T

    Wow, I can't think of any other complications, but new technologies very often come with them. We will continue to encounter these problems as we advance in our technology. It is inevitable.