Techs and the city: Pros and cons of augmented reality in the US

A boy plays Pokemon Go, New York, U.S., September 3, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Kauzlarich

A boy plays Pokemon Go, New York, U.S., September 3, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Kauzlarich

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US cities are not prepared for a boom in augmented reality and the challenge of regulating the urban metaverse, experts say

  • Augmented reality technologies used in US cities
  • These technologies can improve access and democratise info
  • But experts warn of regulatory and privacy challenges

WASHINGTON - Washingtonians curious about what the Franklin D Reeves Center would look like after redevelopment didn't have to wonder for long: all they had to do was scan a QR code on the pavement and hold their smartphones up to the hulking building.

Thanks to the magic of 3D graphics and augmented reality (AR), they could see a sleek glass-fronted space that would, when finished, house the national headquarters of the African American advocacy group NAACP as well as a dance theatre, restaurant and more.

"This tool allows you to almost physically see what the future is going to be," said Michael Marshall, the architect for the new development.

It allows residents "to engage with what we're proposing. That's priceless."

People use their phones to look at augmented-reality images of new construction in Charleston, South Carolina, in September 2023. inCitu/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

People use their phones to look at augmented-reality images of new construction in Charleston, South Carolina, in September 2023. inCitu/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

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The app used in this Washington pilot was built by inCitu, a New York-based company that uses tech to foster collaboration around urban change.

"The idea is to radically democratise access to this information that already exists but is buried in websites or databases of different agencies," said Dana Chermesh-Reshef, a former architect and founder of inCitu.

While urban planning processes are technically open, she said they are typically more accessible for older, more affluent, often whiter residents.

"For most people, they know about new projects when the construction hits the ground."

The Reeves Center project offers an example of how AR is being used to improve life in some of the world's cities, especially for sometimes marginalised communities.

U.S. cities are also using AR to help the visually impaired, bring people together and more, all as part of the growth of technologies linked to the metaverse, which uses AR and virtual reality (VR) to allow users to immerse themselves in a virtual world or overlay information digitally on images of the real world.

But experts warn that authorities are not prepared for the challenges that will come when residents themselves increasingly harness the power of AR. They say this blending of digital and physical spaces will raise legal and ethical questions - around privacy rights and data protection, for example - that have not yet been sufficiently considered.

"Cities are not really prepared for this," said Greg Lindsay, an urban tech fellow at Cornell Tech's Jacobs Institute in New York. "How do you prepare to regulate technologies that don’t exist or are still nascent?"

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Pokémon precedent

By the end of the decade, nearly 700 cities are likely to have rolled out some version of urban metaverse technologies, including virtual and augmented reality applications, according to ABI Research.

Already, some of these are being used by governments and private entities.

For example, last year New York hosted large AR concerts, bringing real audiences to a real place – Times Square – to see virtual shows.

In Decatur, Georgia, officials are using Bluetooth beacons and an app to help the visually impaired find their way around city hall, the police department, recreation centres and other locations, said Renae Jackson, the city’s equity and engagement director.

For those trying to get their heads around what Lindsay dubbed the "augmented city", it might help to recall the surprise success of Pokémon GO, a phone-based game that uses GPS and AR to lead players on a quest through the real world in search of virtual creatures.

Users walk through their neighbourhoods and beyond to find virtual creatures and are incentivised to spend time at particular "stops" – perhaps a park bench or a restaurant. Some establishments paid handsomely to be given such a designation.

In 2016, the game exploded with tens of millions of daily users trekking through their neighbourhoods in search of imaginary characters like Pikachu and Snorlax.

The boom underscored the effects the virtual world can have on cities as players crowded public spaces, leading to car crashes, muggings and injuries, according to some research.

There were also economic impacts. For example, restaurants featured in the game saw customer numbers increase and enjoyed positive publicity, said Vandith Pamuru, an assistant professor of information systems at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, who co-authored a U.S.-based 2020 study on the game's effect on restaurants.

While some cities did try to address problems caused by trespassing or overcrowding, Pamuru said local jurisdictions remain largely unprepared – even as players' preferred technologies have evolved to "wearables" such as glasses.

"The moment you have an interaction with the real world, the right kind of boundaries have to be set on what is allowed and not. That kind of regulation is yet to be seen, and way more of these wearable devices are coming to the market," he said.

Brave new worlds?

Another issue for cities will be ensuring that data and privacy rights are protected as these technologies are rolled out in their own operations, said Julia Glickman, a senior program specialist for urban innovation at the National League of Cities, an umbrella group.

"Creating cybersecurity and data privacy principles is an important starting place," she said in an email response to questions. Cities will also have to address misinformation on new metaverse platforms, and redouble efforts to ensure digital access, she added.

Google, Meta and Apple did not respond to requests for comment on concerns over how their AR technologies may affect cities.

Even as cities work to reinforce their own systems, Cornell Tech's Lindsay and others are forecasting an explosion in the use of AR tools by the public as Apple and Meta roll out new headsets and eyepiece technologies and other tech companies work to create hyperdetailed GPS-like systems.

The smart glasses market alone, estimated at $1.2 billion globally in 2022, is expected to grow by more than 27% per year through the end of the decade.

As technology allows ever greater merging of the virtual and real worlds, some warn of increasingly complex questions around regulations governing advertising, tax collection, private property, public spaces and more.

"Can you put an AR advertisement across the street from a competitor? Will we see a land grab, with multiple overlapping, incompatible realities?" asked Lindsay.

Doug John, vice president of emerging technology policy with the Consumer Technology Association trade group, urged caution with problems that do not yet exist.

"Rules may or may not be needed to address emerging technology," he said, noting that if issues do arise in future, "laws should address the bad behaviour in question rather than the technology used to carry out the bad behaviour."

Yet the Pokémon phenomenon "is a clear warning" that this fusion between the physical and digital worlds could happen very quickly, said Mark Wheeler, former chief information officer of Philadelphia.

He said no regulatory response is immediately needed but urged cities to draft preparedness plans for a likely augmented future or risk finding themselves on the back foot.

"What the private sector could be doing with augmented and virtual reality, we wouldn't realise it as city government, because it could operate under the radar for a long time."

(Reporting by Carey L. Biron; Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile.)

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