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Fake for real

21 January 2021
Ethical and societal implications of augmented reality
Augmented reality responsible innovation Ethics

Photo: Rathenau Instituut

Nep echt - Het Binnenhof met de Chinese muur
With augmented reality (AR) we are constructing a new environment, which is partly physical and partly virtual. We create digital versions of our streets, our living rooms and our bodies and add them to reality as virtual ‘layers’. Can we really distinguish what is real from what is fake in this hybrid physical-virtual world? What impact does AR have on the design of our public space? And how can we ensure that immersive technology enriches our world rather than impoverishing it?

Much is at stake in AR: our perception of reality, but also the design of our physical environment. It is high time for a political and broad public debate on these issues. To start this debate, Fake for real formulates eleven design rules for socially responsible AR.




Our senses enable us to hear, see, feel and smell the physical reality that surrounds us. Augmented reality (AR) places digital layers over that physical reality to create ‘hybrid’ worlds, which are simultaneously physical and virtual. These hybrid worlds can be experienced with smartphones, headsets or smart glasses. They are operated not with a keyboard or a mouse, but through touch screens, voice, and by tracking the physical movements of our bodies and faces. In these worlds, gamers can hunt virtual monsters on the street, artists can install virtual works of art in the city and soldiers can receive tactical information directly in a combat situation.

In the last few years AR has become big business. Developments in the industry have led to innovations in a variety of sectors, including security, health care, architecture, marketing, education and training. By means of digital simulations, AR helps users to redesign work processes or to collaborate remotely. There are also successful consumer applications of AR, for example games such as Pokémon GO and social-media applications like Snapchat and TikTok (which use AR-filters). In the Netherlands alone, there are millions of users of these apps. Large American and Chinese technology companies including Google, Microsoft, Huawei and Bytedance employ thousands of people in their AR/VR activities and apply for thousands of patents for these technologies every year. A number of the largest internet technology companies are now developing their own AR-sets. In other words, such companies see AR as an important component of their future business model.

AR can be seen as a new phase in the information society, whereby the virtual domain spills over into the physical domain. AR changes how we see, hear and feel our environment – and consequently also how we can think about it and how we can act in it. The technology modifies our perception of reality. Users of AR no longer regard the online world as a separate domain, accessible via a laptop or a personal computer. With AR glasses, they look at the world ‘through the net’, as it were. At the same time, they experience the digital elements of that world in a three-dimensional and immersive manner. Users can control AR intuitively, for example through speech or with a wink or a hand gesture. The result is a blending of the physical and the virtual in the user’s experience.

Precisely because of the direct link between AR and the physical world, the technology also raises societal issues. In the first place, a lot of personal data is required to produce an AR environment. That raises issues of privacy, for example in relation to the protection of personal data, data ownership and data security. Secondly, AR raises questions about the manipulation of perceptions and behaviour, since producers of AR applications are able to use devices and applications to manipulate what users see, hear and feel. Thirdly, the technology raises issues in relation to spatial planning. For example, is it a good idea to allow young people to search for virtual monsters close to busy roads, near railway lines, or at sacred sites? Is it permissible to place a virtual copy of the Chinese Wall beside the Dutch parliament?

The question we ask in this report is therefore:

How can AR be developed and applied in a socially responsible manner?

To answer that question, we explore how the technology works, which societal and ethical issues the technology raises and which role the government in particular can play in embedding AR in society in a socially responsible manner. We apply various research methods for our study. We sketch the current situation with AR in the Netherlands on the basis of interviews with designers, users and other stakeholders. In the process, we consider its use in professional practice (in neurosurgery, construction and logistics, for instance) and in entertainment applications. Our review of societal issues is derived from an analysis of relevant scientific literature. And because this study looks to the future, we also leave room for artistic imagination.

How does AR work?

AR can be seen as a new type of environment which differs fundamentally from both the physical and the virtual environment. The specific feature of AR is that the physical and virtual environments blend into one another to create a hybrid physical-virtual environment. Users can experience that environment with a range of AR systems. These systems do two things. First, they create a hybrid environment by creating virtual elements and linking them to specific physical locations, objects or people. For instance, a face filter on Snapchat produces a mask of an animal that is directly linked to a real time, digital image of a person’s face. Second, AR systems function as an interface between the user and the hybrid environment, which means that the user can observe the hybrid environment by means of screens, audio devices or haptic equipment and can perform actions within it.

A wide variety of digital technologies are used in this process: biosensors, cameras, powerful processors, artificial intelligence, digital platforms and robotics. These technologies are used to collect, analyse and apply data about the user and his or her environment. In this way, the user is continuously monitored by an AR system. The data that are generated are linked to pre-programmed information or information that the system finds in other databases, in profiles or on the internet. The virtual elements of the hybrid environment are constantly adapted to the user’s changing circumstances, so that he or she can experience the AR world as ‘natural’.

At present there is scarcely any public debate about the hybrid world: how it should look and who should be involved in designing it. The development of AR technology is currently dominated by – mainly large – commercial technology companies. They design the hybrid world to serve their own, private interests. However, there is a lot at stake with AR: not only our perception of reality, but also the design of the physical environment – also for those who do not use AR. From the perspective of the public interest, it is irresponsible to leave the necessary decisions entirely to the market. It is high time for a broad political and public debate about the embedding of AR in society.

To initiate such a debate, this report formulates eleven design rules for socially responsible AR. These rules are inspired by the societal and ethical issues that we see emerging in relation to the use of AR. On the basis of our research, we distinguish between three types of issues: data issues, perception-control or manipulation issues and spatial planning issues. Below, we mention a number of specific societal and ethical issues in each of those categories, accompanied by a number of design rules and actions the government should take in relation to them. The recommended actions are printed in italics.

Scenario AR - Deepfake - Roos Groothuizen
Illustration: Roos Groothuizen

Design rules

The first design rule transcends the individual issues and emphasises the importance of collaboration between all stakeholders in aiming for responsible AR: companies, citizens, knowledge institutes and civil-society organisations. The government should be at the forefront of the search for a liveable hybrid world.

Design rule 1. Make a joint effort to create responsible AR

Data issues, design rules and required actions

AR systems use personal data. This means that they gather information about the location of the AR user, but also about that person’s physical movements, gestures, facial features and behaviour. AR systems also register a variety of data about the environment, not only the location and characteristics of objects, but also data about other AR-users, and even non-users. This is often intimate information from which unique individuals can be identified. The use of AR devices, for example smart glasses with cameras, can therefore threaten the anonymity of people in public and private spaces. Moreover, applications can share the assembled data with third parties without the user’s knowledge.

Besides privacy issues, AR also raises various ownership issues. AR applications can lead to infringements of property rights, or to destruction of private or public property by encouraging people to go to locations that they would not otherwise visit. It is also possible to digitally modify physical property with AR, which raises the question whether virtual spray painting, for example of another person’s house or a public building, is permissible. Another question is whether users have exclusive rights to their own observation or movement profile. Data about facial and eye movements can provide insights into what users observe. These data are useful for AR companies in helping them to create hybrid worlds, but they are also lucrative, because the data can be used to profile and influence users for commercial purposes.

These data issues call for sharper definitions and explicit legal frameworks. How should ownership be defined and regulated in a hybrid environment? Should companies be allowed to process users’ biometric and other ‘intimate’ data, and if so, how?

These questions lead to the three following design rules and required actions:

Design rule 2. Guarantee the privacy of AR users

Design rule 3. Guarantee the anonymity and privacy of non-users

Required action: Until rules have been adopted by the European Commission, the Dutch government should impose a moratorium on the use of AR applications in the public space by which citizens can be identified through biometrics.

Design rule 4. Clarify issues of both physical and virtual ownership in the hybrid world

Required action: The Ministry of Justice and Security should clarify the legal frameworks concerning ownership of virtual objects, particularly in relation to the ownership of humans, including their body.

Manipulation issues, design rules and required actions

An AR device can be seen as a digital prosthesis that digitally modifies our perception of reality. In doing so it influences what we see, hear and feel, and possibly also what we think and do. AR can therefore affect the physical and mental well-being of its users. The technology is developing rapidly and provides increasingly powerful immersive experiences, making it more and more difficult for users to make the distinction between virtual and physical, and between fake and real. Accordingly, parties that develop AR-systems, -platforms or -content are able to determine what a user experiences in steadily more profound ways. This can be useful, in the context of therapies or learning for example, but can also weaken the information position of citizens or even lead to deception.

AR can increase people’s cognitive capacities in many ways. On the work floor the technology can be used to quickly teach employees new skills. However, there is also a potential downside. If AR technology determines precisely when an employee has to perform a particular action, human labour could also be degraded to robotic work. In the entertainment domain, apps such as Snapchat can provide enjoyment, but they also encourage users to create an ideal digital image of themselves. There are therefore concerns that frequent use of AR not only creates the risk of addiction, but can also distort a person’s self-image or even lead to forms of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD).

In view of these manipulation issues, there is a need for more scientific reflection and public debate on the social significance of AR as a technology that stands between us and reality.

Those issues lead to the following four design rules and necessary actions:

Design rule 5. Protect the mental and physical health of AR users

Required action: The Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport should promote research and public debate on the health effects of AR. The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science should ensure that attitudes towards AR are covered in the policy on digital literacy.

Design rule 6. Strengthen human capacities in a fair and dignified manner

Design rule 7. Protect people’s cognitive autonomy

Required action: The government should promote research and debate on social standards and values (social etiquette) in the hybrid world.

Design rule 8. Ensure fair power relations in the hybrid world

Required action: The Ministry of Economic Affairs should clarify how the government will guarantee fair relations between companies and between companies and AR users in the AR domain.

Spatial planning issues, design rules and required actions

Because AR links the digital world directly to the physical environment, it also raises issues in relation to spatial planning. AR offers possibilities to digitally redesign the physical environment. That has consequences not only in the hybrid environment as experienced by the user, but also in the physical space and for others present in it. For example, the introduction of Pokémon GO created a situation in which thousands of players of the game were drawn to seaside resort Kijkduin in The Hague, where they caused various forms of nuisance for local residents and damage to the nature.

The digital world with its cookies and trackers is now penetrating into spaces and physical environments that used to be entirely analogue. The digital domain is ‘colonising’ the physical world, as it were, which can lead to further commercialisation – also of public spaces such as nature reserves, beaches or town squares. This could impair the public character and communal nature of those locations.

Because AR has far-reaching consequences for the use of our physical space, it is important for the government to explore how the hybrid world can be designed in a socially responsible manner and what rules are needed to accomplish that.

These issues lead to the following three design rules and necessary actions:

Design rule 9. Give citizens control over their physical-virtual identity

Required action: The Ministry of Justice and Security should clarify what the right to physical integrity means in the context of AR.

Design rule 10. Create public spaces in the hybrid world

Required action: The government should investigate how the public character of the hybrid public space can be guaranteed in the long term.

Design rule 11. Design the hybrid environment in a socially responsible manner

Required action: The government should explore how the hybrid environment can be designed in a socially responsible manner.