Article by Greg Lindsay
CityLab  |  June 12, 2023

Augmented Reality Is Coming for Cities

With the debut of Apple’s Vision Pro AR headset, it’s time for officials to prepare for the collision of digital and physical spaces.

(Originally published by Bloomberg Citylab on June 12, 2023.)

When Pokémon Go streaked across the cultural landscape in 2016, briefly becoming the fastest-downloaded app in history, thousands of players stampeded through parks, trespassed en masse, and may have injured nearly 30,000 people due to distracted driving in the game’s first five months alone.

It’s a particularly stark example of what cities could face if Apple’s forthcoming augmented reality (AR) headset, the Vision Pro, becomes as popular as the Apple Watch, let alone as ubiquitous as the iPhone. Although the jury is still out until “early next year” on the public’s appetite for a $3,499 pair of goggles, Apple’s insistence that it’s meant to be worn in the world around other people means it’s time for cities to finally sit up and pay attention to the small-m metaverse.

While Apple may have shouldered its way to the forefront of AR — which Cook has extolled for years — it is hardly alone. Google, Snap, and others have all recently made strides in fusing the real and virtual worlds. Without the means to monitor and intervene in these new dimensions, cities risk companies and creators running roughshod over the public realm. Just last month, for example, Google unveiled its “Geospatial Creator” tool enabling anyone to anchor digital content to real-world locations, such as Google’s own virtual takeover of Times Square by the band Gorillaz in December.

Niantic, the maker of Pokémon Go, is now building its own “visual positioning system” (VPS) — what amounts to a proprietary virtual GPS overlaid on cities, mapped down to the centimeter — to compete with Google’s and others. This not only raises the prospect of overlapping, incompatible realities owned by various tech companies, but also thorny issues around speech and property rights. What’s to stop someone from geolocating an obscene AR billboard outside a competing storefront, for instance?

Will the Vision Pro be AR’s “iPhone moment?” Perhaps, if you recall the original iPhone’s then-exorbitant price tag and lack of an app store at launch. It took years for startups to harness smartphones’ potential to connect and transact with physical spaces and assets, producing platforms like Uber and Airbnb. More than a decade later, cities are still grappling with how to rein in and regulate these disruptors retroactively.

Now Apple and its rivals aim to go a step further by overwriting reality itself, raising a whole new host of problems. How can cities avoid repeating those mistakes in the real-world metaverse? What recourse do cities have when faced with immaterial interlopers who nonetheless have corporate consequences?

Prior efforts to confront another once-impending technological threat — autonomous vehicles — may prove instructive. In 2018, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation commissioned its own software standard, the Mobility Data Specification, for sending and receiving information from fleets of private vehicles (although ultimately scooters instead of AVs). While some players welcomed real-time regulation, others resisted its granular data collection. While LADOT ultimately prevailed against legal challenges, a subsequent effort to convince Apple, Google, Waze and others to re-route driving instructions within their apps was politely rebuffed. It’s hard to imagine the same firms giving cities carte blanche to edit their VPS.

It’s still early in the metaverse, however — no killer app has yet emerged, and the financial returns on disruption are falling as interest rates rise.

Already, a handful of companies have come forward to partner with cities instead of fighting them. For example, InCitu uses AR to visualize the building envelopes of planned projects in New York City, Buffalo, and beyond in hopes of winning over skeptical communities through seeing-is-believing. The startup recently partnered with Washington, DC’s Department of Buildings to aid its civic engagement efforts. Another of its partners is Snap, the Gen Z social media giant currently currying favor with cities and civic institutions as it pivots to AR for its next act.

There’s certainly an argument that augmented reality could be a boon for big cities, enriching and attracting foot traffic to iconic locations weakened by remote work. “I think we’ll see a growing digital divide between cities that embrace AR and those that thwart it,” said Jonathan Askin, director of the Brooklyn Law Incubator & Policy Clinic, who has studied the legal issues stemming from AR. “With governments suffering lost tax revenue from diminished retail and commercial real estate activity, cities and property owners could benefit from smart deployments of games, cultural experiences or even just new advertising opportunities.”

“The only real issue for cities,” he adds, “is how to ensure that use of AR applications does not threaten public safety while enhancing the urban living experience.” And therein lies the rub.

For cities to gain the metaverse they want tomorrow, they will need to invest the scarce staff time and resources today. That means building a coalition of the willing among Apple, Google, Niantic, Snap and others; throwing their weight behind open standards through participation in umbrella groups such as the Metaverse Standards Forum; and becoming early, active participants in each of the major platforms in order to steer traffic toward designated testbeds and away from highly trafficked areas.

It’s a tall order for cities grappling with a pandemic crisis, drug-and-mental-health crisis, and climate crisis all at once, but a necessary one to prevent the metaverse (of all things!) from becoming the next one.

About Greg Lindsay

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Greg Lindsay is a generalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a 2022-2023 urban tech fellow at Cornell Tech’s Jacobs Institute, where he leads The Metaverse Metropolis — a new initiative exploring the implications of augmented reality at urban scale. He is also a senior fellow of MIT’s Future Urban Collectives Lab, a senior advisor to Climate Alpha, and a non-resident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Strategy Initiative.

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