In this latest blog discussing the impact of emerging technologies in the legal sector, we look at Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR). Is there a place for them in the profession? Can they enhance client relationships and improve efficiency or job satisfaction? And what are the implications of these technologies when it comes to legal doctrine?
It is probably worth clarifying up front what we mean by AR and VR. They are related, but they aren’t the same thing. AR is created when technology superimposes information (sounds, text, images) on the real world around us – it adds to the reality we see, it doesn’t replace it. VR is a computer-generated environment that allows people to immerse themselves in another world. Using a headset (with sound and vision), and other input devices such as haptic gloves, humans can experience and manipulate their virtual surroundings. Sometimes the two are combined together, and this is known as Mixed Reality (MR).
AR and VR have been around in some form for quite a while. VR systems were first created in the 1960s, and advances in technology during the 1990s led to increasing awareness of VR in films and computer games. There were some initial problems, with limited processing power on consumer devices and users reporting motion sickness. However, VR has been used successfully for many years to train professionals such as pilots and surgeons. Similarly, AR was used in fighter aircraft display screens in the 1990s, providing information such as altitude and showing targets in the field of view. As the capability and affordability of processing power increases, these highly anticipated technologies are rapidly developing and are now coming into their own. Big players are investing and we are seeing innovations entering the consumer market – for example, the recent Pokemon Go craze.
Can this gaming technology be applied effectively to industry and business? The simple answer is yes, we have been creeping towards the full realisation of these advances for years, and are increasingly seeing practical applications in business. For example, law students at the University of Westminster are being offered learning simulation to understand elements of criminal law1. Using immersive VR simulation with high-tech 3D glasses and the controls of an Xbox gaming console, they can work their way through a crime scene, applying the law as appropriate to determine if a murder has been committed. This technology can also be used in the courtroom, so instead of traditional slides or whiteboards, jurors wearing VR headsets can become immersed in a crime scene – they will no longer need to get on a bus and travel to where the crime happened. High profile public trials could be held in the jurisdiction where the alleged crime took place, but jurors in other jurisdictions wearing VR googles could be deciding the trial. This ‘virtual courtroom’ would be invaluable in international, cross-border cases such as those heard in The Hague. VR can also be used so that witnesses can be protected and give evidence remotely, or if a defendant is being held in prison. Today Video Conferencing (VC) systems are often used, but VR would bring these cases ‘to life’ for the courtroom, without people actually having to be in the same location.
Lawyer, Mitch Jackson, describes this technology as “allowing litigation and trial lawyers to tell better stories… for the first time, we will be able to take our audience by the virtual hand and walk them through a crime scene, in real time or recorded, so they understand and appreciate a situation or experience.” And there are other uses too, Mitch continues, “imagine how powerful it will be for your potential clients to watch you in real time (or recorded) mediating a case, arbitrating a claim, or giving a closing argument. Lawyers who live stream this VR experience will stand out above all the noise.”2
So can VR and AR offer your firm a competitive advantage? It is anticipated that these technologies will also be used for improved client interaction, recruitment and employee or client training – providing a better understanding of the subject matter. Meeting with clients in long-distance locations could become more engaging than video meetings – you can shake somebody’s hand in VR and feel as if you are there with them. Firms should be starting to look for opportunities to use these innovative technologies to attract and retain new clients and the best talent for their business.
We wanted to take a quick look at three key legal areas that could be affected by the rise of VR and AR. The use of these technologies highlights a number of legal issues, which could affect legal doctrine and the future work of law firms:
Early users of VR experienced headaches and ‘virtual motion sickness’. The latest technologies seem to have improved this, but it remains an issue for some. Games manufacturers using VR need to provide warnings about this. A user immersed in VR is also in a vulnerable position – the VR headset essentially blocks their sight and hearing. Indeed, Sega abandoned its first efforts at VR citing fears of personal injury. As VR environments become increasingly realistic, there is a growing risk of users with limited spacial awareness losing their balance and injuring themselves. AR presents slightly different challenges, but the Pokemon Go craze has already raised issues around product liability, with distracted players so caught up in the game that they were oblivious to their surroundings. This resulted in traffic accidents, entering dangerous locations and even sunburn3.
The liability and practical risks around the use of AR and VR may restrict the rate of adoption in the legal market and specifically courtrooms.
Data protection and privacy
With the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the potential for huge fines, organisations have to be more aware than ever about the data they hold and its security. VR headsets can capture large amounts of personal data such as dexterity, reaction times and ease of movement, which could build up a health profile. Eye tracking technology is far more intrusive than cookies. VR manufacturers need to ensure privacy is protected, and that data is processed and stored securely – and only if they have explicit permission to do so.
Data privacy is a hot topic right now and at a time when everyone is looking at the issues it raises it will be a brave legal firm that adopts such technology for use with clients especially when they know the data it can passively capture.
Patents and IP
A large amount of hardware and software goes into developing VR systems, so intellectual property (IP) will need to be incorporated into commercial agreements. The unique capabilities of different input devices – such as headsets and gloves – will also need protecting. In a virtual world, users are able to enhance their environment and create their own content – this raises questions about who owns this copyright. This area of the law will need expanding with careful consideration.
In this case, it’s not an impact on the practice of law but on the law itself – there is a whole area of legislation that needs to be addressed as VR and AR becomes more prevalent.