Pokémon Go poised to change reality forever

‘Catch ’em all’: Surprise! A wild Psyduck appears in the middle of an ordinary street. © Nintendo

All over the world, people are leaving their homes to explore their surroundings. Behind every tree, they could find a Charmander or a Jigglypuff. Could augmented reality change our lives?

It is 6:30am. Your smartphone buzzes. As you wake up and check your notifications, you soon spot a Bulbasaur bouncing at the end of your bed. On your walk to school, you take an unusual detour so you can catch a rare Horsea lurking by the river. Before heading home at the end of the day, you and your friends stop at a local landmark and battle your rivals at the Pokégym.

Welcome to Pokémon Go, a new app in the US and Australia which is already more popular than Tinder — and headed for the UK.

It started as an April Fool’s joke. In 2014, Google Maps released a fake trailer for a game which would allow users to catch Pokémon in the ‘real world’. Then the unexpected happened: people loved the idea. It was so popular in fact that the joke quickly transformed into a business plan.

Now, it is finally available to play. Google’s ‘augmented reality’ company Niantic teamed up with Nintendo to create a digital Pokémon world which is layered on top of ordinary locations. The game is simple — ‘gotta catch ’em all!’ — but Niantic’s CEO John Hanke says its main mission is to ‘help you discover the awesome stuff in your town.’

It has rocketed to success, adding $7bn to Nintendo’s value in a single day. ‘It makes me want to walk around San Francisco aimlessly,’ wrote one reviewer. ‘It makes me want to hang out with other nerds fighting for fake ownership of statues.’

Best of all, it can be played almost anywhere. ‘There are portals in Antarctica and the North Pole, and most points in between,’ says Hanke.

Over $1bn has been invested in virtual and augmented reality in 2016 so far, and the tech world has been buzzing about its potential for years. But Pokémon Go is the first time it has really made it into the mainstream. As the technology improves, its supporters say it will revolutionise everything from social media to travel to heart surgery.

For many people, Pokémon Go could be their first glimpse of that future.

Reality bytes

Be careful, warn some. Augmented reality has huge implications for our relationship with the world around us, many of which we are only just beginning to imagine. Pokémon Go has already run into various safety and security problems; four people were arrested for armed robbery after waiting for victims at a remote Pokéstop in Missouri. We should think very carefully about how this technology will affect us.

But for the majority of players, Pokémon Go has been an amazing experience. They are getting more exercise, meeting new people, and seeing the outside world with a renewed sense of wonder. All technology has teething troubles — but it is all worth it in the end. As long as people ‘keep their heads up,’ says Hanke, they will be fine.

You Decide

  1. Would you spend more time outside if you were playing Pokémon Go ?
  2. How else might augmented reality change the way we relate to the world?

Activities

  1. Take a photograph of an area in your town. Then imagine you are seeing it through augmented reality, like a smartphone or Google Glass. What information or ‘annotations’ would you like added to your ordinary vision?
  2. It is 2025. Augmented reality is now the norm. Write a short story about how it has changed daily life in your country.

Some People Say...

“Reality is an illusion.”

What do you think?

Q & A

This sounds amazing. When can I download it?
The game is not available in Europe or Asia yet; its official release was postponed due to the high demand on servers in the USA. But Niantic has promised that it will be ready in ‘a few days.’ Just remember to look where you’re going, and to let your parents know where you are.
Will the technology really change that much?
It depends whether it can make it into the mainstream. The idea of virtual reality has been a sci-fi staple for years — but it has never taken off, partly because the headsets are difficult to integrate into everyday life. It does not matter how impressive your technology is if no one wants to wear it. But if companies can overcome that problem, it has the potential to change everything, just as smartphones did a decade ago.

Word Watch

Pokémon
The Japanese franchise began as a video game for the original Game Boy console in 1995. A popular card game and anime soon followed. In the 20 years since, the games have sold more than 200m copies.
Virtual and augmented reality
The simple difference is that VR is all-consuming, while AR adds to what you can already see.
Social media
In 2014 Facebook bought a virtual reality start up called Occulus VR. ‘Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures,’ said Mark Zuckerberg.
Travel
‘Virtual tourism’ would enhance the way people think about travel, say VR optimists. Nothing can compare to the real thing, but getting a ‘taste’ may encourage more people to see new places for themselves.
Heart surgery
In April this year, Dr Shafi Ahmed performed the world’s first surgery to be live-streamed through VR — an incredible training opportunity for young doctors.
Safety and security
One man found people loitering outside his house after it was accidentally labelled a Pokégym. One woman followed a Pokémon over a fence and discovered a body.

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