Digital Ownership Rights for XR
Extended Reality (XR), the umbrella term for Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR), has been accelerating in popularity over the past decade. With all of the discussion around the innovations in XR hardware (Apple’s anticipated VR headset for example), an emerging aspect that we are closely watching is how XR software will be governed (by platforms themselves and by the law).
One of the core software pillars of AR will be Virtual Positioning Systems (see Augmented Mapping for our previous newsletter on this topic), which will enable developers to localize users and their devices to create persistent AR content. A robust VPS will provide developers with a hyper localized map to deploy digital content through.
Our Belief: AR adoption will find its true unlock through a few ubiquitous digital layers. These layers will act like a geolocated digital copy across the globe, first starting with major hubs and then expanding to more niche locations. In the future, we believe developers will build content on top of these layers and users will access, view, and edit the content directly.
Digital Ownership of a Physical World
The main difference between the distribution layer of the internet versus AR is how the digital “real estate” of these ecosystems will be owned. The purpose of AR is to augment in-real-life (IRL) experiences with digital content. This means that municipalities, businesses, and individuals will be able to add layers of digital content to their physical spaces. Currently, most AR experiences focus on publicly available spaces and there is potential to extend outside of just the owners of the physical property. For example, if you own a home in Los Angeles then you have a deed that represents that ownership. Who owns the digital replica (or the virtual space) of my home in not only one or two, but many, virtual layers?
As digital twins and distribution layers are developed for AR, a question about open access to creation/editing/ownership is going to become increasingly important. There are two sides to this - content publishing and access - with how content publishing is limited being a core issue developers will need to think about.
The norm today to limit access is generally through features such as paywalls and permissions. While there are also guardrails (laws and regulations) for distribution, they are technically simple to bypass through methods like torrents. Torrenting doesn’t depend on a centralized server for storing files. Instead, bits of data from individual large files are saved in participating computers (peers) in a network (swarm) to facilitate the file-sharing process (Techslang).
There is not a similarly accepted standard around the distribution of publicly accessible content. The most similar product that exists today are review systems like Yelp or Google reviews.
While a business owner may want to enhance visibility or information sharing around their business by allowing AR content to be tied to the physical property (like reviews and pictures are today), these systems can be easily exploited through digital vandalism (the tagging of negative content to the physical location). Establishing a standard layer enabled by a VPS will require governance and maintenance by both the technology platforms as well as the government (by law).
The lack of standards around digital property rights extends to all physical buildings, including individual homes and government offices. While there are currently a plethora of laws (including the 5th Amendment) that created rules and protections around what individuals can and cannot do with respect to private property, today these only apply to physical properties. When real-life locations are enhanced with digital content, new distinct challenges are introduced.
Today consumers are contributors to products like Waze, Yelp, and Google to enhance experiences for other users. Over time this has become important for businesses to open up access to reviews, photos, and real time experiences because it adds a layer of trust to new customers. While this does add a layer of accountability to business owners it also opens up issues around nefarious posts that are meant specifically to hurt a business. For companies like Google, millions of reviews are posted on Google Maps every day which has forced Google to implement measures to combat “review bombing” and keep trust in its products for users and businesses (Engadget).
The ability for anyone to generate content associated with a physical property poses a considerable risk that is currently unguarded against. Property owners would likely be reluctant to have their houses display augmented content that might inadvertently - or deliberately - disclose personal information, promote offensive material, or adversely affect the value of the home. For example, you would not want someone to have the ability to post a picture of my family above my house (in an AR digital layer) for anyone to look at (whether they are walking by on the street or browsing remotely).
If AR becomes widely adopted there are going to be legitimate (and consequential) conversations around digital property rights that could look similar to property lines. This would mean you not only own what is there physically, but also what is within those boundaries digitally.
Takeaway: The AR layer on top of the physical word has serious implications for personal safety and what constitutes digital property lines. This issue is quickly coming as AR and its technology suite creates new challenges for the governance by tech platforms as well as the government (local and federal). While current debates around access within tech have increasingly shifted towards discussions around openness, the risks associated with AR content will require more nuance (likely much less “open”, which is not always good for society) and we anticipate this will be in favor of property owners (physical, and soon digital).