Pokémon GO Proves Congress Needs to Establish Augmented Reality Property Rights

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Rev. Christopher Benek is the associate pastor of Family Ministries and Mission at First Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, FL.

With the massive success of mobile game Pokémon GO there is no question that augmented reality is here to stay. Newzoo recently reported that, months after its launch, over 700,000 people a day are still downloading the game. More than that, Niantic, the game's creator, is steadily collecting roughly $2,000,000 a day in revenue. But even with such reality-changing success, the coming AR boom is going to require Congress to get involved soon so as to protect the rights of many individuals, non-profit organizations, and businesses.

The main concern arises because of the new medium that emerging technology has created. Augmented reality (AR) supplements a computer-generated reality to enhance one's present-world environment in real-time. So in the case of Pokémon GO — a player's (also called trainers) mobile device augments a digital cartoon character as if it is presently in front of you. The game then revolves around catching various types of Pokémon by flicking Poké Balls (traps) at them to capture them.

Much of the fun of the game is that the animated characters that one can't see with the naked eye are potentially all around the player. The trainer's mobile device then becomes a detective tool by which these augmented created beings can be discovered, tracked and collected.

Unfortunately this same element of the game that makes it adventurous and fun has also led to some problematic and even illegal behavior by players. Because of the randomness of where the Pokémon spawn, trainers often track Pokémon to unlikely places. Taking this to extremes, the Daily Mirror reported that a player was shot and killed for trespassing while on a Pokémon hunt. Several players have been robbed and assaulted while playing. People have literally walked off a cliff and another has crashed into the back of a police car while playing. Like any technology, playing Pokémon has its risks if appropriate boundaries aren't enacted.

But the AR elements of the game go far beyond just catching Pokémon. In order to catch these little AR critters and excel at the game, participants need to constantly collect and restock an array of items to help them in their efforts. Of necessity are Poké Balls that trap the Pokémon. And for players to collect these items and to compete with other players they have to go to fixed AR locations named PokéStops and Gyms. And this is where trouble arises.

AR locations are created by the game's creators on present reality locations without the owner's consent. For instance, the church that I serve at in Ft. Lauderdale has two Pokéstops on our campus and there is another across the street at a nearby public park. Additionally, there is a Pokémon Gym just down the street at the famous Floridian Diner and Las Olas Boulevard is littered with AR locations. More than that, the AR creatures can spawn just about anywhere for anyone to see. Many of my congregants have caught numerous Pokémon within the church. I have even caught a couple in my office.

Now nobody is currently complaining about this. Many of our congregants enjoy Pokémon GO, myself included (I'm only a lvl. 24!). But with Pokémon GO's profitability you can bet that AR interaction is only going to continue to increase. One day, not long from now, people will likely wear AR glasses or even contact lens that will display a whole AR world in addition to the reality they presently experience. Our car windows will also likely be infused with this emerging tech. And as long as those experiences are tame no one will likely complain.

But what happens when AR developers cease to be polite? Remember AR can literally be superimposed over any present physical environment. So what happens when an Internet porn company decides to make public pornographic AR that resides on a church campus? What happens when a business's company headquarters is defaced by competitor advertisement? What happens when school bullies slander your child with AR graffiti on their locker at school? Or worse yet, what happens when citizen's homes begin to be targeted with racial, homophobic, or gender slurs? Without much imagination one can quickly see an infinite possibility of problematic situations that can arise in this new medium.

Of course some will say: "Well just don't use AR." But, in the near future, that simply won't be an option. AR will be as common as driving a car, using the Internet, or talking on a cell phone. People will want and even need to access AR to be able to function in their day-to-day life. And that is why it is essential that Congress establish AR property rights in our present reality now.

Of course, we need to understand that this is no small task. The United States Government will need to take the appropriate steps to prevent international AR cyber threats from occurring in the United States and its protected territories. And to do this an appropriate balance will need to be created between personal digital anonymity and public accountability. This will also likely mean that US politicians and diplomats will need to take an active role in encouraging ethical AR behavior globally which will require a tireless effort. But the alternative of ignoring these issues is potentially far more devastating to the future fabric of humanity.

This is precisely why Congress needs to get out in front of this issue now — because the various incidents that have ensued from catching a few imaginary creatures is going to soon be the least of our AR concerns. Without appropriate oversight, AR abuse is likely to be on humanity's horizon. And that could mean that the personal, religious and corporate freedoms that we presently experience could be significantly augmented to create a present reality that no one wants to experience.

The Rev. Dr. Christopher Benek is the Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Ft. Lauderdale, FL. He is internationally known for his insights that intertwine faith and practice - particularly on issues pertaining to emerging technology. Learn more about him and subscribe to his blog at www.christopherbenek.com