The little pocket monsters known as Pokemon were first released in the mid-90s as a game for Nintendo’s Gameboy. Fast forward 20 years, and we’re suddenly watching the resurgence of a handheld game that was originally based on the creator’s fascination with insect collecting. The added twist, however, is that augmented reality now makes it possible to let game makers populate our reality with virtual characters that we can spot through our phones. The game has changed.
The rapid, overwhelming success of Pokemon Go! surprised even John Hanke, chief executive of Niantic, Inc., the Alphabet spinoff that co-developed the game with Nintendo. Part of his surprise was the rapidity with which the game surged as well as its immediate, and impressive impact on the company’s bottom line. But should it have been so surprising?
If you’ve only just heard of Pokemon Go or have been wondering about people staring at something through their phones in random places, here’s a quick summary. To put it simply, it’s a smartphone application, and like other smartphone apps you use, it’s designed to work with Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems. Also like other smartphone apps, there were some privacy concerns, and privacy rumors, and there were difficulties for users trying to download and install the app from overwhelmed servers (I had to was able to download it at 4AM without any trouble, btw).
Once in hand, however, the popularity of Pokemon Go has lead to some interesting implications for the future of mobile apps, augmented reality, and even the Internet of Things. For starters, since the app is designed to make you go out and look for Pokemon in the “real world,” it has lead to situations in which game enthusiasts were hunting for little monsters in places where a higher measure of propriety would be expected (such as the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Arlington National Cemetery). The game has also lead to a few unfortunate incidents of players following the app over a cliff, and of young players being threatened for being on a man’s lawn (seriously). In other words, the game has augmented the players’ reality to such an extent that players are actually experiencing a different space than the people around them.
Along with these negative experiences of augmented reality, however, the app has also lead to an increase in social interactions among strangers and many players have commented about the ways in which the hunt for Pokemon has prompted them to explore their neighborhoods as never before.
As with other emerging technologies, the augmented reality experience of Pokemon Go points up the extent to which we will have to adjust socially to new trends in technology, for better or for worse. Sometimes, even exciting innovations like Google Glass will fail because they are just perceived as too weird to the people who aren’t experiencing the augmented reality with the tech user.
What does all this augmented reality mean for other apps and for businesses interested in using augmented reality either internally or externally? For one thing, it’s worth noting that it is possible to design an app that can use a smartphone not just to draw one’s attention to what is on the phone (I imagine we all know someone with a Candy Crush or Minecraft obsession), but to what is beyond the phone. The phone can, in fact, be used as a way of connecting to one’s environs while seeing “things” that are there that others might not see. Imagine an app, for instance, that works with your smarthome, offering you an augmented-reality view of your energy use or the heating or cooling leaks in your home. Such apps might also have implications in the medical field, or in smartphone based educational materials, and beyond.
The shocking success of Pokemon Go isn’t just due to the ready-made audience of people who first played Pokemon 20 years ago and were anxiously waiting for something new. It also reflects the fact that almost everyone now has a camera and a computer on hand at all times, and these powerful devices aren’t just useful in situ. Rather they are connected, whether it be to our own online accounts, the cloud community, or the network of people (friends, family, and strangers) that we interact with every time we enable an app and approve of privacy settings that gather as much information about us as they share. It will be fascinating to see where AR takes us, and to be part of it as a company.
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