Pokémon Go and the marketing agencies of the augmented world
Repost from 2016: What if a coffee chain could buy the exclusive rights to turn all its stores into Pokemon gyms? [I am archiving some of my writing in the spirit of digital preservation - this is a repost of a blog that originally appeared on the Nesta website on 12 July 2016]
Pokémon Go has taken the world by storm, catapulting augmented reality technology into the mainstream. It is time to start thinking about how AR could change our streets forever?
The free mobile game already has almost as many active users as Twitter, despite being launched just 6 days ago, and added more users its first day than dating app Tinder has in total. The unanticipated success of the game- which so far has only been made available in a handful of countries- has driven co-owner Nintendo's share price up by almost 50 per cent, adding over $10 billion to the gaming company’s value.
What is Pokémon Go?
Pokémon Go is a free game for Android and iOS where players try to catch Pokémon, little creatures best known for the 90s TV show (and associated trading card hype) and 00s video games. The novelty of Pokémon Go is its use of augmented reality technology: rather than asking users to search for Pikachu et al. within a virtual universe, the game is built on top of Google Maps, asking players to interact with the real world. Its interface is a map (below, right) leading users to actual physical parks, train stations and other public places to find the pocket monsters.
Pokémon and the special ‘gyms’ where players can go to train them, might be located in real-world locations anywhere around the globe- from outside Boris Johnson's house (below, left) to battlefields in Iraq. When players get close enough to an anchor point on the map, the game switches to a camera view, overlaying what we see in the real-world with animated Pokémon or other elements of the gameplay, using AR technology.
All fun and play?
While most laud the positive effects of Pokémon Go, a rare example of a game that promotes in-person interaction with other people and physical activity by forcing players to, well, leave the house, some have pointed out the potential dangers. There is a risk of users getting themselves in dangerous situations by, for example, running into traffic to catch a Snorlax- selfie deaths 2.0. Some also paint grim scenarios of Pokémon Go-related crimes, with Pokémon featuring as the creepy van-man’s 21st century version of free candy. These fears might not be completely overblown, as the first reports of users having been trapped and robbed by fellow players are already surfacing.
The game also raises important questions about the relationship between the virtual and real world. By using augmented reality the game is exerting a very real effect on the physical world, directing people towards open public spaces like parks or to points of interest like statues. While much of this is benign we can already see the negative impact it has had on some people. Boon Sheridan lives in a converted church and since the launch of Pokémon Go his home has been inundated with players of the game. Due to outdated mapping information, his house is still listed as a church and has become a gym in the virtual world. As a result countless numbers of people have been standing around in his garden looking intensely at their phones well into the night. As Boon points out in his tweets there are all sorts of implications for him and his home.
‘Do I even have rights when it comes to a virtual location imposed on me?’ - Boon Sheridan
The revenue model of Pokémon Go is currently based on in-app purchases: users can buy items that allow them to attract more Pokémon, or make their own Pokémon stronger. In-app purchases, as well as selling user data, are the business models generally used by mobile game developers. But the physical element of AR-based applications opens up a whole additional (real) world of money-making opportunities. What if Starbucks could pay to turn all of its franchises into exclusive Pokémon gyms or a roaming place for rare Pokémon? By luring in potential customers with the promise of a Mewtwo to-go with their morning cappuccino, Starbucks could ‘steal’ a buck or two from the competing small coffee shop across the street.
While no previous augmented reality-based applications have managed to really make a breakthrough, the success of Pokémon Go is likely to help the technology become mainstream. If we will indeed see a growing use of the augmented world, we will need to start thinking about the implications this added dimension will have on our actual physical world. We have strict rules for fair competition and overly visible advertising in our shopping streets- does the world as we see it through our smartphone screens need similar protections?
If we will indeed see a growing use of the augmented world, we will need to start thinking about the implications this added dimension will have on our actual physical world.
The original internet community placed a lot of emphasis on maintaining net neutrality- the founding principle that all ‘packages’ travelling on the internet should be treated equally, irrespective of their source. This in effect means that internet providers cannot, for example, favour traffic from Facebook- which might be able to afford to pay extra- over the loading speed of the website of a local charity or small startup, which might not. While AR is currently not at the stage where discrimination is a real concern, it might be time to start thinking about similar guiding principles for an augmented world.
The nature of the internet, with its economies to scale and network effects, has meant it tends to lead to the formation of legacy platforms dominating certain segments of the industry: Google for search, Facebook for social. Augmented reality will likely see the emergence of a similar dominant platform, on which any kind of different functionalities could be built, from Ingress-like games to restaurant recommendation apps to one-click AR shopping. Though Pokémon Go and the growth in AR are still at an exciting early stage, we need to keep an eye on developments in the industry so we can address these future issues before the platform becomes too dominant and established to regulate.