“Pokémon Go” has changed the gaming industry as we know it. What makes the game so noteworthy is its use of a technology called augmented reality (AR), which blends 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 put virtual “pocket monsters” in 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 cell phone – the actual world. Most importantly, this technology is available to anyone with a smart phone (the game currently has over 100 million global downloads with no sign of slowing). There’s no expensive gear required. You simply download the app and, quite literally, go.
Like with any new technology, augmented reality applications have positives and negatives, and questions and concerns naturally arise. On one hand, “Pokémon Go” has been lauded for encouraging physical activity. Because the app scatters virtual Pokémon 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 at their cell phone. There have been numerous reports of “Pokémon Go”-related accidents. Also, any app that tracks a user’s location carries risks and vulnerabilities in digital privacy and personal safety.
But while the concerns about AR technology might be obvious, less clear are the potential benefits. The limits of what AR might make possible are yet to be conceived, but already there are rumors of theme parks developing AR apps that will allow visitors to interact with virtual characters. And, the technology is amazingly scalable. Just imagine walking through a park or museum with virtual guides who appear at points of interest to offer historical context and explanations of the sights. This may sound futuristic, but with the rate of advancing technology, it could be right around the corner.
Perhaps most important is what the development of AR technology could mean for public safety. Envision being able to instantly locate a fire extinguisher, defibrillator, or emergency exit wherever you are. With AR, evacuation routes could guide panicked crowds in an emergency; 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 will be skepticism and concern. New technology means new practices, new standards, new regulations, and lots of new questions. Change is usually scary at first. Unfortunately, a new technology’s potential risks tends to be what people first hear about it. In reality, the fact that people may be doing unwise things while playing “Pokémon Go” isn’t that noteworthy, considering people have always done unwise things regardless of their location or the technology at hand. Instead of focusing 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, AR technology could one day save lives. The virtual realm has the potential to bring truly positive changes to the real one.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.