Could Augmented Reality Games Have a Positive Impact?

Pokémon Go is showing that the technology can bring people together, but it also has drawbacks

5 August 2016

Smartphone owners have yet another reason to stare at their device. Game developer Niantic last month released Pokémon Go—a location-based, augmented reality game for iOS and Android devices. More than 75 million people worldwide have downloaded the free game, which tracks your phone’s location and sends notifications when fictional creatures—with names such as Pikachu and Squirtle—are nearby. Their images appear on a street map of the player’s location. When the creature is less than 2 meters away, the map disappears and the creature appears on the screen as if it were in the same real-world location as the player.

Pokémon Go has made augmented reality more accessible, and almost commonplace, to millions of people—many of whom had never interacted with an AR game or device before.

AR expert John Rousseau, head of insights and strategy at Artefact, a design firm in Seattle, predicts that virtual and augmented reality apps such as Pokémon Go will become ubiquitous. At the Augmented World Expo, held in June in Santa Clara, Calif., Rousseau proposed three “laws of mixed reality” to ensure that AR and VR technology positively impacts society. So, how does Pokémon Go hold up?

  1. Mixed reality must enhance our capacity for mindful attention.

    Developers at Niantic know how distracting the game can be. The first screen that appears whenever a player opens the game has a warning message: “Remember to be alert at all times. Stay aware of your surroundings.”

    Despite the disclaimer, the game has already caused deadly distractions, as people walk around while looking at their phone to find and capture nearby Pokémon creatures. Some players have been robbed, stepped into traffic, and have even fell off a cliff while playing the game. People who choose to play Pokémon Go while driving pose even more risks to themselves and those around them.

    One way to cut down on the danger is by playing the game on a different device. Osterhout Design Group, for example, recently loaded the game on its R-7 AR smartglasses, which let players keep their heads up. Engineers at ODG had a blast testing the smartglasses. The glasses require a Wi-Fi connection to play games, though, and they cost US $2,750. So for many of us, using an AR headset to catch that rare Charizard isn’t quite feasible.

  2. Mixed reality must embody a shared human experience.

    In terms of benefiting society, bringing people together is where Pokémon Go really shines. Many people say they have gotten out of the house and are interacting with other players, striking up conversations with strangers they might typically ignore.

    The inspiration to go outside and become more social seems to benefit players with anxiety, depression, or autism. A mother of a 12-year-old autistic boy in North Carolina, for example, told ABC News that her son, who would normally be inside playing video games, is now taking his passion for gaming outside and relating to people with whom he normally would have difficulty interacting.

  3. Mixed reality must respect boundaries between commerce and data.

    Rousseau notes in a blog post that as mixed reality starts to take over, “data will become more valuable and easily manipulated to serve other interests.”

    The Pokémon Go’s first update limited the amount of personal data it collects—but according to its privacy policy, Niantic has permission to share information about users with other companies for what it says are “research and analysis, demographic profiling, and other similar purposes.”

    On the bright side, the game has benefited some small businesses by allowing owners of game shops, restaurants, and retailers to declare their buildings as Pokéstops, where players can stock up on virtual supplies. Business owners also can purchase lures that attract Pokémon creatures—and therefore Pokémon Go players—to their locations.

Although the game does not obey all three of Rousseau’s laws, it does have its plus side. In addition to the benefits already listed, the game encourages exercise and teaches players about local historic landmarks that have been designated as Pokéstops. It’s also speeding up the adoption of augmented reality—for better or worse.

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