Pokémon Go offers glimpse into 'augmented reality' future

By marrying AR with geolocation, it became the No. 1 mobile game in the US in one week. The technology behind Pokémon Go promises new business and public-safety applications, but risks, too.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
People costumed as the game's characters participate in a Pokemon Go search during a gathering of players July 20 in San Francisco.

Pokémon Go is more than just a wildly popular game – it is a window, albeit a primitive one, into a new, potentially far-reaching technology.

While players today hunt Poké monsters, which pop up in real-life gathering spots, in the future the technology will be able to foster communities that meet face-to-face, give businesses new ways to bring customers to their location, and allow firefighters to “see” structural vulnerabilities in burning buildings and plot exit routes.

It has also sparked privacy concerns. By marrying “augmented reality” or AR, which projects computer video onto physical space, with geolocation, the game can track where a player is. That carries risks as well as benefits.

Pokémon Go is a “primitive version of AR, to be sure,” says Darrell West, founding director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. But it’s also an advance look “into the technology our world will wield 10 or even five years from now.”

Eight days after its July 6 release, Pokémon Go attracted 25 million users, becoming America’s most popular mobile game ever, according to SurveyMonkey. Since then, the numbers have fallen off somewhat, but it remains hugely popular.

At Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., for example, the campus is replete with Pokémon gyms and stops. “It’s one of the better places in the entire city of Norfolk to go on Poké Walks,” says D.E. Wittkower, an assistant professor who studies the philosophy of technology and culture.

Since the launch of Pokémon, “We’ve seen a huge increase in students walking around talking to each other,” he says. “It’s been really fabulous to see this very real community pop up where people are talking to each other about shared interests in public spaces. Some were together in those spaces before, but they didn’t have something they were doing together.”

It led Dr. Wittkower and his colleagues to think about how they could use Pokémon to reach out to students, with plans to add Pokémon lures to bring students to temporary outdoor information desks, as well as placing counseling and writing center stops along Pokémon walks.

“If you buy $100 worth of Poké-coins, it’s about $1.90 per hour to set up a lure – that’s really cheap,” he adds.

The game also has business applications.

“This is also the first time we’ve seen an app that allows a business to actually create a vehicle to advertise that draws people physically to them,” notes Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies Inc., a market-research firm in San Jose, Calif.

Restaurants or shops can purchase “lures” to draw Pokémon characters to their sites, which in turn draw players who might then buy a soda or snack.

For this all to work, Pokémon Go requires players to provide access to valuable data on their phones – specifically GPS and camera features.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the app requested “full account access” to even more data, a fact that analysts found particularly troubling. Niantic has since said that the request was a mistake, and that they didn’t actually use any of it.

“I don’t think they were planning on doing anything nefarious with this data,” says Adam Reeve, principal architect for the cyber security company RedOwl Analytics. But it’s almost irresistibly valuable for marketing – and any data companies collect is also data that can be stolen.

Then there are the security concerns that come with large gatherings of Pokémon players.

“You have people in large groups going to places they might not normally go,” Mr. Reeve says. “They’re not there for anything malicious, but now you could have a physical security problem. If you’re the police, you’re a little concerned by that.”

Still, the technology is also allowing the campus police at ODU to expand community policing efforts, rolling up on lured stops to check in with players, and hanging out and walking with them.

This has resulted in an “amazing boon” for community policing efforts, building relationships, Wittkower says.

It is, he adds, “really cool stuff.”

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