As I write this, Pokémon Go, a new app, is quickly changing the gaming industry as we know it. What makes the game so noteworthy is its use of a technology referred to as augmented reality which blends together a virtual world with the real world. Unlike virtual reality games, which create entirely digital worlds that players experience by way of fully immersive headsets, the AR technology behind Pokémon Go uses the GPS of players’ mobile devices to layer virtual “pocket monsters” over what appears to be the room they’re in or the street they’re walking down. Players then find, capture, train and battle virtual Pokémon in what seems to be—at least through the screen of a cellphone—the actual world. Most importantly, this technology is available to anyone with a smartphone (the game currently has over 100 million global downloads with no signs of slowing). There’s no expensive gear required. You simply download the app and, quite literally, go.
Like with any new technology, there are both positives and negatives, and both questions and concerns naturally arise. On one hand, Pokémon Go has been lauded for encouraging physical activity. Because the app scatters virtual Pokémon in various locations throughout the real world, the only way to catch them is to actually get up and go to those locations. But there are obvious risks that go along with this technology. The most notable is the increase of people wandering (or worse, driving) around while staring into the screens of their cellphones, and there have, since the game’s mid-summer release, been numerous reports of Pokémon-related accidents. Also, any app that tracks a user’s location creates certain risks and vulnerabilities in areas of both digital privacy and personal safety.
But while potential risks from this technology might be obvious, less so are the potential benefits. The limits of what AR might make possible are yet to be conceived, but already there are rumors of certain theme parks developing AR apps that will allow visitors to interact with virtual characters at set locations. And, the amazing thing is how scalable this technology is. Just imagine walking through a park or museum with virtual guides who appear at certain points of interest to offer history and explanations. This may seem far off, but with the rate of advancing technology, it could be right around the corner.
Perhaps most important is what the future development of AR technology could mean for public safety. Envision being able to instantly locate a fire extinguisher or defibrillator or fire exit in any location. With AR, evacuation routes could guide panicked crowds in a disaster; cars on Amber Alerts could automatically be flagged by other vehicles within their range. The possibilities for good are truly endless.
Any time the public experiences a sudden leap in technology, there comes skepticism and concern. New technology means new practices, new standards, new regulations and lots of new questions. Change is usually scary at first. Unfortunately, how a new technology is misused tends to dominate what people first hear about it. In reality, the fact that people may be doing unwise things while playing Pokémon Go isn’t all that noteworthy, considering that people have always done unwise things regardless of their location or the technology at hand. Instead of focusing so much of our attention on the risks of this new technology, it seems worthwhile to put our effort into fully exploring its benefits. Far beyond simply catching pocket monsters on a cell phone, this technology could one day save lives. The virtual realm has the potential to bring truly positive changes to the real one.