Pokémon GO users encounter augmented reality on phone

If you own a smartphone, you’ve probably heard of the newest mobile game sweeping the nation — or at least kids ages five to 35, and then some.

Pokémon GO is a free, downloadable, international app developed by Niantic Inc. that utilizes augmented reality to populate a player’s surroundings with Pokémon characters from Nintendo’s popular games for users to catch.

Players interact directly with their smartphone screen using a Google Maps layout. They can level up by catching and evolving Pokémon, visiting Pokéstops, and training and competing in Gyms, to name a few.

One of the game’s selling points has been encouraging its mobile players to go outside and walk around, allowing them to take advantage of the nice summer weather. An entire section of Pokémon GO’s website is dedicated to exploring. It states, “Get on your feet and step outside to find and catch wild Pokémon. Explore cities and towns where you live — and even around the globe — to capture as many Pokémon as you can. As you walk through the real world, your smartphone will vibrate to let you know you’re near a Pokémon.”

Pokéstops, for example, are another way that the game connects a virtual player to reality. They can be located at interesting or significant landmarks around a player’s area such as monuments, historical markers, or even a park bench in Schenley.

Pokémon GO is bringing this type of augmented reality interaction to a stage that some would argue hasn’t been approached on this scale before. With over 100 million downloads and millions of people playing the game at any one time, the game is bound to have real world consequences.

Jeffrey Bigham, associate professor of human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science, is excited to see where this exposure to augmented reality can take us.

In a university press release, he said, “There’s so much more potential for augmented reality than what Pokémon GO shows. But I think it’s just the beginning, hopefully, of what we’ll see.”

Games that use augmented reality like Pokémon GO could be used in education, business, and more.

“One area that I’m really interested in is how we can turn players of these sorts of games into sensors on the world,” Bigham said in the press release. “So that could help a lot of different people navigate the world more easily.”

Augmented reality can also enhance and amplify our own human capabilities. Although it sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, augmented reality could be used to help identify people in a room by displaying their name over their head. It could even overlay videos in real-world situations to explain how to perform a certain task.

Drew Davidson, the director of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon, is already receiving calls asking how to apply the game to education. In the university press release, Davidson attributes the appeal of the game to students as simply being “because kids like it, and they care.”

In regards to its application to education, he questions, “How can you take these mechanics and this idea, even if it’s not Pokémon GO specifically, just to understand what’s making it work? How do you get them that inspired and that engaged?”

Augmented reality such as this is not without risk, though. Player safety has become a prevalent issue, with players chasing Pokémon through unsafe areas without taking into account reality’s surroundings.

As a result, Pokémon GO’s website has become riddled with warnings like, “For safety’s sake, never play Pokémon GO when you’re on your bike, driving a car, riding a hoverboard, or anything else where you should be paying attention, and of course never wander away from your parents or your group to catch a Pokémon.”

In addition, since the game’s development, the company has received a number of lawsuits pertaining to homeowner comfort and safety. When developing the game, Niantic used user-submitted data from one of its other games — Ingress — to determine locations for Pokéstops and Gyms, and some of these locations didn’t translate well from the virtual world to reality.

Augmented reality will undoubtedly change the way we interact with the world around us. The question will be whether or not the benefits of using it outweigh dangers.