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What Pokemon Go can teach us about the future of architecture

Wednesday, 27 July 2016



By now you’ve surely heard about the worldwide phenomenon that is Pokemon Go. For the uninitiated, it is a smartphone game requiring players to move around the real world in order to find and capture fantasy creatures called Pokemon. Once encountered, players see the digitally-created Pokemon overlaid onto the live camera feed of their smartphones.

This type of digital-physical mash-up is referred to as augmented reality (AR for short), and it’s not really that new. The first written description of the concept was made by author L. Frank Baum in 1901. More recently, if you’ve watched football on TV in the last ten years or so, you’ve seen the line of scrimmage and first down line digitally represented and overlaid onto the live feed of the game. Despite the concept of AR being old, Pokemon Go may represent a watershed moment for the technology. For many, Pokemon Go is the first time they’ve actively and regularly used augmented reality. The creators have not only invested much time and effort into laying the groundwork for the game by identifying real-world points of interest players must interact with, but they’ve cleverly incorporated several behavioral design strategies like nostalgia, novelty, social interactions, and elements of chance to encourage uptake. Their efforts have paid off as the uptake has been massive and swift. Legions of players are roaming city streets in search of virtual monsters.

The game, with its incorporation of augmented reality and place-based gameplay, has been responsible for a host of new behaviors. Many players are walking more, learning about landmarks in their cities (points of interest in the game correspond to actual monuments and places of historical significance), and creating new social connections when sharing tips with fellow players. Bars and restaurants near in-game elements have seen significant increases in foot traffic and sales. These examples reflect a desire for increased, natural integration of the digital with the physical. As the technology develops we are able to explore exciting possibilities for space and experience design.

Not all the outcomes have been positive though. With new behavioral paradigms come unintended consequences, new abuses, and new moral and ethical considerations. There have been instances of players with their attention focused on their phones walking into traffic, and in at least one case, off of a cliff (alcohol may have been involved in latter instance). Enterprising criminals have used in-game devices to lure unsuspecting players down dark alleys to be robbed. Players have trespassed, disrupted operations in hospitals, and been a distraction to patrons at a Holocaust museum. These actions have raised questions about how much responsibility lies with the game’s designers.

Pokemon Go may or may not end up being a turning point for the massive adoption of augmented reality. Even if it is not, the revolution is coming, and the practice of architecture will undoubtedly be affected. In our next blog post we will discuss how the design of built environments could change as people find new ways to interact with the world around them. We will also explore how the process of designing the built environment may be enhanced by new developments in augmented reality. Stay tuned!

-Brewer Palmer and Laura Biltz

Brewer Palmer and Laura Biltz are Design Strategists at Shepley Bulfinch

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