Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality Are Coming – Are You Ready for New Technology with the Same Old Risks?

November 11, 2016
Brandon S. Harter

Smart phones are increasingly being designed as tools to allow users to enter virtual and augmented realities. Also, dedicated virtual reality hardware is becoming widely available and increasingly more affordable. At the same time these devices are becoming available, companies like Lancaster’s own Greenfish Labs are providing virtual reality development to organizations like the Catholic Church. The combination of access and development can only lead to an explosion of virtual and augmented reality to mainstream audiences in the next few years. So how can you prepare your company for the legal risks that arise from using these technologies? Let’s examine a few existing technologies that already face the same or similar risks to get some answers.

What are virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR)? In virtual reality, the user’s real world view is entirely replaced by a virtual environment. Examples include systems like Google Cardboard, Facebook’s Oculus devices and Samsung Gear VR. Virtual reality can include not only visual representations, but also sounds and physical feedback (known as haptic feedback). Augmented reality provides the user with digital information imposed on top of a real world view (live or recorded). Examples include Google Glass, which can put a heads up display on what is seen by the user, and Pokémon Go, which imposes the digital Pokémon on the real world environment seen by the user.

One recent example of the risks in using VR was highlighted by a user’s claim of being sexually assaulted in a game. The female user reported that another player had used their digital avatar to “touch” her avatar inappropriately. While such harassment might feel more invasive in virtual reality, this same issue has plagued the internet and online games for years. So while mainstream VR may be new, many of the techniques that have been used to control harassment in these systems, such as allowing users to be reported and banned, can be applied to VR.

An example of the risks of AR systems was highlighted in the recent Pokémon Go craze when users walked into traffic and were hit by cars while attempting to capture Pokémon. Where has this issue been faced before? How about through users who have ignored the world around them and followed their GPS devices to disastrous consequences? We expect GPS devices to explicitly warn users not to blindly follow GPS instructions without being mindful of the world around them. Similar prompts can be used to reduce the risks in AR systems.

When your company decides to use VR or AR, ask yourself how you want to protect your users. Do we develop the software to reduce the risks, such as preventing contact between users or to periodically warn users to pay attention to their environment? Perhaps we add a reporting system and ban offending users. Do we take a hands-off approach and disclaim in the terms of service that you are not responsible for what occurs? This is a discussion you need to have with your developer and legal counsel before launching your users into a digital reality.

Brandon Harter is an attorney and technology guru at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He received his law degree from William & Mary Law School and advises clients on issues of Business Law, Civil Litigation & Dispute Resolution, Municipal Law, and Information Technology & Internet Law.