Researchers on Augmented Reality Dangers

In previous posts, I have criticized Google Glass and windshield displays, complaining that they are highly distracting and lethally dangerous especially while driving.  My own view is that the companies putting these out are behaving Evilly, ignoring or denying what we know very well from many decades of psychological research.

Eric E. Sabelman and Roger Lam have a nice piece in IEEE Spectrum’s blogs, “The Real-Life Dangers of Augmented Reality”  Their main point is precisely what I have said

“reviewing the existing research on the way people perceive and interact with the world around them, we found a number of reasons to be concerned. Augmented reality can cause you to misjudge the speed of oncoming cars, underestimate your reaction time, and unintentionally ignore the hazards of navigating in the real world. And the worst thing about it: Until something bad happens, you won’t know you’re at greater risk of harm.”

Notice the last point: your intuitive feeling that everything is fine should not be trusted.

They comment on one of the bogus intuitions commonly stated about AR gear,

Why would augmented reality be bad for you but good for a fighter pilot?” “The difference is that an aircraft head-up display typically shows information in a highly symbolized and minimalistic way, with little text and no images of people”. And, by the way, “pilots go through extensive training to be able to interpret this information quickly.”

Aircraft systems do not obstruct peripheral vision, and present only stripped down symbols directly in the center of vision—so the pilot’s attention is not diverted. S&L comment that newer AR systems promise high fidelity 3D objects projected in the center of vision—and extremely unsafe idea.

As they note, information that requires attention, such as text, or social messages, are greatly distracting and severely degrade performance. (See Mythbusters  distraction is just as dangerous as drunk driving.) And, again, your own estimate of how OK you are is just wrong.

These guys study visual impairments, and comment that, ironically, by using an AR device “you’re likely to experience some of the same problems faced by visually impaired individuals: reduced depth of focus, distance and speed perception, and reaction time.”

The conclusion is:

Because AR hardware and applications can impair their users’ vision, their designers owe it to the world to be careful. What’s more, they need to test their products on people of all ages and physical abilities. They need to evaluate users’ reaction times while their apps are running. They need to put wearers through real-world obstacle courses with opportunities to stumble. And they need to determine just how much content you can present via an AR app before it becomes dangerous.”

I will amplify their comment: if you want to find out how to do this testing contact me, I’ll help find you competent psychologists.  Feel free to contact me.

One suggestion Sabelman and Lam make is to use GPS and other motion detection to automatically disable AR while moving above a crawl. This is a good idea, though I doubt that a purely technical solution will be good enough. I would certainly make it illegal to drive with AR on, and also make sure that insurance is invalidated if you wear AR. But that is only for driving. It doesn’t mitigate the dangers of walking into traffic, falling down stairs, and so on.

I will add another piece of advice for AR designers: talk to lawyers and insurers about your liability if someone is hurt.

Hint:  someone is going to be hurt, and you will be sued for selling an inherently dangerous device.  Lawyers and insurers will probably tell you that the plaintiffs will argue that you should have known better, and either deliberately or negligently ignored both common sense and scientific understanding.

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