A police station in Australia is witness to wandering zombie-kids lost in their phones sauntering in unannounced. The police station is a PokéStop.
So is the Auschwitz museum (which thankfully, is now blocked from being one out of respect for the dead). Kuwait has banned PokéStops at military locations, mosques or malls. A 21-year-old in Oregon continued playing the game after he was stabbed, declining treatment. “Pokémon is a no-go when driving” says a traffic sign board in Arizona.
Welcome to the post Pokémon Go world. In less than two weeks since launch, Pokémon Go has emerged as the most viral mobile application of all time with more daily active users than Twitter and greater user engagement than Facebook.
For the uninitiated, Pokemon Go is an augmented reality game that overlays virtually generated Pokemon characters on your real-world view seen through the smartphone camera. Using the smartphone GPS, map and the camera, Pokémon Go gets its players to find imaginary Pokémon monsters in the real world. Suddenly everyone is on foot, entering strange locations and going to all lengths to find these characters.
The real world just got more interesting.
Pokémon Go’s raging success is driven by the confluence of many factors. Obviously, it leverages the hugely popular Pokémon brand but that is not the only reason for its immense popularity. The game is craftily designed (if we overlook all the bugs and server outages) to drive engagement offering regular ramp-ups (levelling up or spending more time in the game) to keep the player in the game. But what’s more critical is the fact that Pokémon Go is played in concert with real life which makes it more urgent and immersive. It’s difficult to press your phone’s Home button and close the game when you’ve walked a kilometre away from your home with the express purpose of playing it.
The social benefits of Pokémon Go are already being touted as the real benefit of the game. It gets people, otherwise trapped in their homes or cubicles, walking out into the world, albeit with their faces attached their smartphone screens. It is even argued that the game encourages greater social interaction by getting people to meet in real life and in a collective global hobby.
But I contend that the real benefit of Pokémon Go may be something more fundamental. It prepares our society to herald a new future that lies in wait for us.
Let me explain.
Throughout history, for good or bad, technology has been the most powerful influence seeking to change our culture and society. It is technology that moved us from farming and into factories. It is the same technology that made travelling the world easier and thus made it possible for cultural fusion to accelerate. The internet resulted in the first wave of knowledge explosion that accelerated our collective growth as a species. Technology (in the form of social networking) has made us more narcissistic beings.
With Pokémon Go we may be at another cultural inflection point.
Welcome to Hyper-reality
Taken collectively, Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual reality (VR) represent the next fundamental shift in how technology will penetrate our lives and impact it. From a sociological point of view, VR is an “escapist” technology. It has the power to carry us off to virtual worlds and keep us immersed in it while we remain fully disconnected from the real world. Its express objective is to accentuate this disconnect and make you forget the boring reality. AR, on the other hand, is an “embellisher” technology. Here the intent is to embed the real world with virtual elements that make it more fun, useful and powerful. This provides AR the ability to impact every facet of our existence while VR is likely to be limited to escapist industries that focus on entertainment or education.
We currently live in two parallel worlds: the digital world powered by the internet and cloud, and the real world, which we engage with separately. Our engagement in this real world is conditioned by the limits of our physical and mental abilities. We seek the help of the digital world but that essentially requires us to dip into it now and then much like alt-tabbing between windows.
With AR, all that may change.
In his book Ready Player One, Ernest Cline presents a future where VR is pervasive and people lose themselves to a life in these virtual worlds only to occasionally emerge into a rather dystopian real world for some basic needs. This is synchronous with science fiction’s often gloomy portrayal of a world of VR. However, this may be a silo-ed view of the kind of world we are heading towards.
Instead, we are heading towards a Hyper-reality — a mixture of physical reality with virtual elements and human intelligence with artificial intelligence (a definition suggested in Paradigm for the Third Millennium by Terashima Nobuyoshi and John Tiffin). It’s a world where we do not distinguish between the physical and virtual and lose ourselves in the seamlessness of its integration.
And as with any disruptive technology, it will impact our culture and society in ways we can only dream of. Fire up your imaginations and picture one small use-case: a world where you are able to get data about the people you meet in real time (a floating data blurb above the person’s head). This in itself will promote completely new social structures of how we live, work and interact with people. Will people lie? How will we safeguard our privacy? What new dangers will emerge out of this pervasive real-world information?
And this is just one of the millions of such interaction changes that are likely to take place when the two worlds (virtual and real) collide.
Pokémon Go is not the first AR based mobile game. Ingress was here before and did an admirable job of bringing real-world data and virtual game mechanics together. Yet, it definitely did not get the masses moving like Pokémon Go. With better design, bigger brand and arguably better game mechanics, Pokémon Go may just be the killer app that gets millions of people accustomed to a new reality that is heading towards us.
Games have often suffered from a short-lived hype only to end up in the wasteland of buried games (Nintendo’s own Mittomo is a testament to that) and Pokémon Go’s sustained popularity is not guaranteed. However, by getting kids to go hunt for Pokémon Eggs in PokéStops, it is training them to take baby steps into an early copy of the Hyper-real world. It’s a training ground for the world they are likely to live in.
Tyagarajan S is a writer and an aspiring author. He likes exploring the impact of technology on culture and society. In his previous life he was the CEO of Chalkstreet.com and has worked with Flipkart and Amazon helping them set up businesses.
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