A wild zubat invaded my house the other morning, flapping and fluttering its wings and causing quite a stir. I quickly tried to capture it using PokemonGo on my iPhone, but it eluded me.
Last week, the digital world was overrun by PokemonGo. The contagion surrounding the game has outpaced demand for Tinder, Snapchat and even social media behemoth Twitter.
This game introduces us to augmented reality in startling new ways. PokemonGo is one of the first location-based augmented reality tools to gain significant traction among the general public. Augmented reality applications combine images of the physical world (the spaces and places around us) with data from the digital world. PokemonGo does this by using the GPS signal on players’ mobile devices to place them on a map of the physical world. Then that map is overlayed with digital characters, signposts, and gathering sites.
The digital characters – raging bulls, fuzzy insects, flaming ponies, and other colorful creatures – hide in position waiting to be discovered. Viewing the world around them through the camera on their mobile devices, players detect these digital characters hiding under benches, rustling near sidewalks or bouncing among pedestrians on the street.
PokemonGo has raised all sorts of concerns about the safety of players who run into roadways or roam through private property or wade into creeks to find their next quarry. And, yes, the first Pokemon I uncovered was in the middle of a highly trafficked street. Onlookers have complained about the hordes of people with their faces buried in mobile devices clogging sidewalks and venues. Facebook and Twitter rants continue to decry the stupidity of distracted walking. These concerns are valid.
But augmented reality has a beautiful side too. In a walk around the park, I met dozens of strangers on safari. They were all smiling and cheering. But even more notably, they were working in teams – coworkers on a lunch break, groups of friends, pairs of husbands and wives. Paris Saxton, 20, who has played “nonstop for the last five days,” had two friends with him, one who started four days prior and one who had just captured his first Pokemon on their morning walk. Saxton proudly displayed his discovery of the elusive Pikachu (arguably the most famous of Pokemon creatures) which he captured after 4 days of searching.
Like Saxton and his friends, these players were completely disconnected from passersby who watched them with expressions of laughter, bemusement, confusion or even mild disgust. But they were intricately connected to fellow hunters, stopping to talk with strangers, sharing their discoveries and celebrating the thrill of the hunt.
You may not care about PokemonGo. You may call it silly, wasteful or mindless. But its popularity heralds a new age of location-based augmented reality tools that are about to invade our lives, with all of their ramifications, good and bad. Like that toothy zubat in my house, they may already be here, even if we choose to remain blissfully unaware.
John A. McArthur, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte. He studies human computer interactions and is the author of Digital Proxemics: How Technology Shapes the Ways We Move.