Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Pokémon Madness: from Cyberspace to Augmented Reality

Pikachu, a popular Pokémon

(image from pokemon.wikia)

I'm sure you've noticed the Pokémon madness by now.

You probably heard that Nintendo released a downloadable game for mobile devices such as your smartphone.
The game, called Pokémon Go, allows you to walk around and capture little creatures known as Pokémons.

That may sound trivial at first, but Pokémon Go is unique, because it brings together virtual images of Pokémons with real-time video.  While you view the surrounding scenery through the screen of your mobile device's camera, the game can project virtual Pokémons into live video.  (See the advertising video below.)


The game went viral within days, leading to millions of downloads and topping the charts on Google Play.  Consumer demand was so high that it generated enormous strain on the servers, an unforeseen problem that Nintendo repeatedly has had to fix.  Even with this technical issue, the game is exploding, and Nintendo’s market value has soared as a result.

Full disclosure here: I haven’t played the game, and I probably won’t.  As a general rule, I like to keep my distance from the latest hype, which allows me to look at it more objectively.  So for example, if we look at Pokémon Go from such a distance, we can make a philosophical observation here about our relationship to reality in the digital age.

Back in the day we talked about cyberspace, an umbrella term that usually meant online, interactive spaces made possible by the World Wide Web—i.e., computer networks connected via the Internet.

Now, however, cyberspace has blended into real space.  Pokémon Go is the latest example of virtual reality seeping into reality.  That’s why we refer to mobile devices as part of the Internet of things—it's not just the Internet alone, but the Internet connected to things in the world.

What all this means is that the term 'cyberspace' may be outdated.  Cyberspace isn't separate from real space any longer.  An updated description of this new situation is the phrase Augmented Reality, which means that physical reality is supplemented or augmented by virtual reality.  (There’s also the phrase Computer-Mediated Reality, in which perception is modified or mediated by wearable computers—think of Google Glasses.)

Google Glasses

(image and description from Wikipedia)

Pokémon Go is just the latest example of us moving from cyberspace to Augmented Reality.

So is the emergence of Augmented Reality a positive development in our lives?  Well, like all new technological innovations, there’s always the good, the bad, and the ugly.
  • The Good: Augmented Reality gives us plenty of virtual applications to enhance work we do in the real world.  For instance, GPS (in cars, planes, maritime vessels, etc.) allows us to navigate terrains more efficiently in real-time.  In human sciences like ergonomics or usability, wearable computers like eye tracking technologies allow us to study vision with more precision.  In such cases, technology doesn’t interfere with life but truly supplements it and helps us make improvements.
  • The Bad: As Pokémon Go shows, Augmented Reality takes video games to a whole new level.  While fun, that also makes video games much more addictive, leading people to do highly irrational things.  Within days of the Pokémon madness, there have been what police describe as “trespassing epidemics” and even instances of people quitting their jobs to become full-time Pokémon hunters.  In these cases, technology interferes with life, and not in a good way.
  • The Ugly: Augmented Reality may create amusing games like Pokémon Go, but sometimes the public may literally amuse itself to death (as Neil Postman cautioned long ago).  Some players have been so absorbed in the game that they unintentionally plunged into ponds, walked into highway traffic, crashed into trees, and fell off of cliffs.  In those cases, technology ruins life.

Regardless, Augmented Reality is here to stay.  The ultimate question is how to make best use of it by understanding its good, bad, and ugly sides.

I think we can do better than Pokémon Go.


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