Augmented reality, augmented ethics: who has the right to augment a particular physical space?


Augmented reality (AR) blends the virtual and physical worlds such that the virtual content experienced by a user of AR technology depends on the user’s geographical location. Games such as Pokémon GO and technologies such as HoloLens are introducing an increasing number of people to augmented reality. AR technologies raise a number of ethical concerns; I focus on ethical rights surrounding the augmentation of a particular physical space. To address this I distinguish public and private spaces; I also separate the case where we access augmentations via many different applications from the case where there is a more unified sphere of augmentation. Private property under a unified sphere of augmentation is akin to physical property; owners retain the right to augment their property and prevent others from augmenting it. Private property with competing apps is more complex; it is not clear that owners have a general right to prevent augmentations in this case, assuming those augmentations do not interfere with the owner’s use of the property. I raise several difficult cases, such as augmenting a daycare with explicit sexual or violent images. Public property with competing apps is relatively straightforward, and most augmentation is ethical; those apps simply function like different guidebooks. Under a unified sphere of augmentation it is unclear whether augmentations should be treated more like public speech (which we value) or graffiti (which we do not) or (most likely) some of each. Further consideration is needed to determine what kinds of augmentations we view as ethical.

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  1. 1.

    As Brinkman (2014) notes, this makes augmented reality somewhat different than head’s up displays (which may project information but do not adapt to the world), location-aware applications such as Google Maps (which track the user’s location but do not project virtual information), and apps that do image processing (which may recognize that an image is of a particular subject but again does not project that information onto the world.) Augmented reality requires both the projection on to the world and the analysis of surroundings in order to adapt or change those projections.

  2. 2.

    See Wolf et al. (2015) for further discussion of these technologies.

  3. 3.

    There is some interesting work being done on this kind of augmentation—see, e.g., Narumi et al. (2011)—but it is still relatively rare compared to visual or haptic augmentation.

  4. 4.

    This vision of a unified sphere of augmentation may lead to problems when we try to figure out how to integrate multiple applications or systems; Roesner et al. (2014) discuss how the implementation of augmented reality technologies may pose security and privacy concerns.

  5. 5.

    Perhaps the most worrying scenario for many people is the idea that AR could be combined with facial recognition technology so that information about strangers could be displayed to a user as he or she was walking down the street; this would greatly erode public anonymity. Acquisti et al. (2014) created a very basic version of this, so the concern is well-founded.

  6. 6.

    Note that there could be circumstances where these actions are ethical; I could confiscate your pencil if you refuse to stop filling out an exam paper once the time has expired, say, and that would likely be ethical. Similarly, if I knew some maniac was going to shoot the next person who wrote a sentence with that pencil, it would probably excuse coating it in grease to prevent you from being shot (although this is likely not the most efficient way of preventing this occurrence.) These would both count as extenuating circumstances.

  7. 7.

    Note that some objects can be obtained for real world currency, in which case the manner of obtaining them is not purely virtual.

  8. 8.

    Of course, since most virtual worlds are hosted by private companies and players simply operate under an End User License Agreement, there is a good chance that technically they do not own the virtual property. How to handle this legally is a matter of much debate. (Cifrino 2014; Glushko 2007; Horowitz 2007; Nelson 2011) However, the fact that the company could decide that a player should not have access to a particular item (perhaps because it was obtained by violating the Terms of Service) is rather different from saying that another player can ethically take it. A player may not own an item or a piece of virtual property, exactly, but it is still intended to be used by that player and thus she may be harmed by its removal. The ethics seem somewhat more straightforward than the law in this case.

  9. 9.

    Obviously this is a little simplistic; a blog that uses your name for its URL is easier to find than a random string of characters. However, the content itself in general does not depend on the URL. There are a few exceptions to this—for instance, if lost its domain, the content of the page might have to be changed. But it could probably survive a minor alteration (, perhaps) without requiring a content change. This is different from augmenting a physical space, where the virtual content is tied much more tightly to the specific geographic location.

  10. 10.

    There is also a difference with intellectual property, which generally does not have a physical or virtual location of this sort; you do not have to be in a particular virtual world or in a particular part of the physical world to experience it.

  11. 11.

    Brinkman (2014) notes that we frequently use metaphors to describe technology, which can be problematic when the metaphor breaks down because there is not a strong enough parallel between the cases. Nevertheless, with the restriction to private property and a single sphere of augmentation, I believe the metaphor holds here.

  12. 12.

    I would note that there are many reasons why I might wish to prevent the augmentation of my property in addition to grumpiness. For instance, an augmentation could interfere with the intended use of a property; this could have serious consequences in certain cases. Thus a hospital might wish to prevent unwanted augmentations from appearing in order to keep surgeons from being distracted, say. Similarly, a daycare center might not wish to have graphic depictions of violence augmenting their space, as it might discourage parents from entrusting their children to the center.

  13. 13.

    Of course, the state’s use may trump my use, such as if the road is going to be closed and road closure signs rest partially on my property; in that case, my use is subordinate to the greater good.

  14. 14.

    At least at present. While this response to dealing with augmentations—sometimes called “geofencing” because it places a digital “fence” around the particular geographical area (Brinkman 2014)—seems to align well with current ethical intuitions about property, Wassom (2015) discusses the fact that ultimately we might sell physical and digital development rights separately for something like a commercial space.

  15. 15.

    This would also hold true if the augmentation enticed people to trespass, as Wassom (2015) notes.

  16. 16.

    Though possibly legal, unless it rises to the level of defamation.

  17. 17.

    Again, assuming that the information was not gleaned unethically.

  18. 18.

    This would need to be designed carefully and with informed consent in mind. As one of my reviewers pointed out, we have standards for public indecency which prevents certain things from occurring in view of all people—this would likely prevent this case from occurring under a single sphere of augmentation. If the app were aimed at adults and clearly presented what content users could expect, thus ensuring informed consent from its users, then I believe this objection could be sidestepped for AR that is spread across many different apps.

  19. 19.

    There have also been issues with people playing Pokémon GO in hospitals, as one of my reviewers noted. In general these cases involve players either using cell phones where they are not permitted or entering restricted areas in search of Pokémon. I chose not to focus on these cases because they strike me as somewhat less straightforward than the Holocaust Museum case; one could argue that the unethical action is in the forbidden cell phone use or the entering of restricted areas by itself, ignoring the augmented reality aspect completely.

  20. 20.

    Perhaps it could be possible to make temporally-limited augmentations such that they expire after a certain period of time. This could at least cut down on the number of overlapping augmentations in a particular place.

  21. 21.

    There’s also an interesting question about whether there might be good reason to prevent augmentation of a particular space even if the augmentation itself is not problematic. For instance, perhaps a piece of public art should be experienced as it is, rather than having people view its augmentations and thus experience it only through the lens of pre-conceived notions.


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Correspondence to Erica L. Neely.

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Neely, E.L. Augmented reality, augmented ethics: who has the right to augment a particular physical space?. Ethics Inf Technol 21, 11–18 (2019).

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  • Augmented reality
  • Property rights
  • Ownership
  • Ethics of technology
  • Pokémon GO