Legislators, Industry Executives Debate Whether AR Activity Should Be Regulated

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Pokémon Go.
Pokémon Go. Credit: Niantic

Augmented reality, or AR, has become an object of curiosity and fascination for consumers and marketers alike this year. It's also gotten the attention of the U.S. Senate. On Wednesday afternoon, a Commerce subcommittee held a hearing dedicated to fleshing out some of the economic opportunities and privacy concerns presented by the technology.

Pokémon Go, which launched this summer, has been at the center of the AR frenzy, and the chief executive of the company that made the game, Niantic, was on hand to discuss it.

John Hanke, the star witness on a panel that also included researchers and association representatives, attempted to dismiss some concerns about the game and the technology it uses.

"There are people who look at augmented reality and assume that vast amounts of data are being vacuumed up and stored," he said. Niantec's policy, he said, is to collect only the minimum amount of data necessary to operate the game.

"People have said that we're collecting vast amounts of personally identifiable identification and we're going to sell that to advertisers," Mr. Hanke said. "That's not the case." The game makes money from in-app purchases made by players.

The senators on the Communications, Technology, and the Internet subcommittee of the Commerce Committee seemed to generally align with the panelists in viewing AR as an exciting new technology with wide applications across society and commerce.

"I'm really excited about this space," said New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, calling it a "wonderful bipartisan space." However, he refused to answer a question about whether he personally plays Pokémon Go.

Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal seemed to suggest that additional limitations should be put on Pokémon Go users, citing a New York Times story that blamed apps for a rise in traffic deaths. He argued that AR use, such as playing Pokémon Go, is "unsafe at any speed."

"Personally, that feels like a step too far to me," said Mr. Hanke. Pokémon Go, he said, places limits on how quickly a player can be traveling while playing the game, but admitted that his company is unable to determine the method by which someone is traveling at that speed.

Overall, he said of player safety, "It's certainly an issue that's a big one that we have to wrestle with, and try to improve the current situation."

Michigan Sen. Gary Peters described cybersecurity as the greatest threat faced by the U.S., and Mr. Hanke discussed some of the attacks his company has faced.

"The variety of attacks the origin of these attacks is worldwide," he said. "The sophistication of these attacks is impressive from a technology point of view."

Mr. Hanke hinted that government involvement would be helpful in curbing some of the threats faced by companies like his.

"We often feel like we're out there alone in trying to fend off these attacks," he said. "It is kind of a wild west situation, and it doesn't always feel like there's a sheriff out there to help out."

In his testimony, Gartner Research Vice President Brian Blau said that too much regulation could suffocate the technology before it gets a chance to truly blossom. "For the market to grow, it's critical that you carefully consider any actions that would restrict or limit AR's innovation process," he said. "AR needs development and maturity in many areas and will for many years to come."

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