ASKED & ANSWERED: Brian Wassom on augmented reality and the law

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Brian D. Wassom is a commercial litigator in southeast Michigan whose practice focuses on copyright, trademark, publicity rights, media law, and related subject matter. Wassom, a partner and the chair of the Social, Mobile and Emerging Media Practice Group at the law firm Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP, writes a blog at He talked to the Legal News about augmented reality and the law.

Mathis: You published your first piece on augmented reality law back in 2007. Did people know what you were talking about back then? Do they now?

Wassom: Very few people I encountered in 2007 had heard of the term "augmented reality." I've consistently found, however, that almost everyone grasps the concept quickly once I begin to explain it. Even then, we had plenty of examples of AR dispersed throughout pop culture, in both fictional and non-fictional form. For a lot of people, all you have to say is "yellow line on the football field," and they get it. Movies like "Robocop," "Terminator," and a dozen other sci-fi films also feature AR visualization without ever calling it that. In those fictional environments, the technology is just taken for granted.

Mathis: What is augmented reality and why should we care?

Wassom: There are different ways of articulating the definition, but it boils down to superimposing digital content on the physical world. To "augment" means to "add to or make greater," and "reality" is what we experience with our five senses. So AR adds to our experience of the world by digitally enhancing what we see, hear, and touch. (And there are even applications in the works that augment the senses of taste and touch.)

AR matters because it is inevitable. I'm convinced of that, because it is the logical conclusion of several current trends in technology. There's a reason it keeps showing up in futuristic films; futurists think about how they would like to interact with digital data if the technology allowed, and this is the vision they keep coming up with. And it's more than just a technology, or set of technologies; it's an entirely new medium. Some commentators call it the "eighth mass medium," on par with the invention of the printing press and the internet.

Once we have the hardware and software necessary to interact with this medium ubiquitously and seamlessly, it will revolutionize society and the exchange of information as radically as the Internet has done over the past 20 years. That's an important development to start thinking about.

Mathis: Which area of law is most affected by issues of augmented legality?

Wassom: As the discussion on my blog shows over the past few years, it's impossible to narrow the relevant issues down to just one topic. It's the same reason that it doesn't often make sense to talk about "Internet law" as if it were one defined subject; instead, the Internet plays a role in legal disputes involving business contracts, intellectual property, slander, infliction of emotional distress, employment, and many other legal areas. AR law will be similar.

That said, the areas I'm particularly interested in are those that will be unique to the blending of the digital and the physical that sets AR apart. For example, who is responsible if I hurt myself while I'm walking down the sidewalk because my view was blocked, or I was distracted, by a "virtual" object displayed in front of me? Will it violate trademark and unfair competition laws if I look at one store through my digital eyewear and see a coupon for its competitor? And what will the ramifications be for civil society as individuals increasingly ensconce themselves in their own private, digital worlds?

Mathis: In your 2012 ebook, "Augmented Legality," you wrote that augmented reality-digital data superimposed on the physical world-was poised to take our everyday lives, and the laws that govern them, by storm. How much closer is that storm today?

Wassom: Quite a bit closer. Unlike when I wrote those words two years ago, everyday consumers now have their choice of several different sets of digital eyewear to choose from. There are devices on the market and in production that can scan and make a 3D model of one's physical surroundings in real time. A huge community of gamers are combing the earth to interact with virtual objects inside a massively multiplayer AR game. The world is getting increasingly augmented every day.

Published: Thu, Aug 14, 2014