What Does Pokémon Go Mean for Augmented Reality?

Pokémon Go has more daily users than Pandora, Netflix, Spotify, and Twitter. Why is this game so popular? What does its popularity mean for science and for the future of augmented reality?

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #200

Do you have a Charmander in your collection? How about a Squirtle, a Mewtwo, or a Jigglypuff? What about an elusive Vaporean? If you have no idea what I am talking about, then you must not be one of the estimated 7.5 million people who downloaded the Pokémon Go app in its first week.

Why is this game so popular? What does its popularity mean for science and for the future of augmented reality?

The Popularity of Pokémon Go

It’s still too early to tell whether the instant surge in popularity for the pocket-sized monster collecting app is sustainable. Frequent crashes have turned off some users while others see these minor glitches as the price you pay for playing such a popular game. The developer of the app Niantic was also already forced to address its unnecessary overreach in claiming access to the entire Google account of each of its users.

Despite these issues, the BBC notes that almost 6% of Android users had downloaded Pokémon Go within a week of its release. That’s more daily users than Pandora, Netflix, Spotify, and even Twitter. Players are using the app on average of 43 minutes per day, and there were over 15 million tweets mentioning Pokémon Go in the first week. As Om Malik wrote for the New Yorker, “To say it has spread like wildfire is to exaggerate the power of wildfires.”

The adorable critters are popping up everywhere from funerals to museums and even next to a player’s wife as she gave birth. Real estate brokers are using the presence of Pokémon to raise attendance at their open houses and being within five minutes of a Pokémon Go gym is now listed as an asset for homes on the market along with hardwood floors and open layouts. You can hire a Pokémon trainer on craigslist for a mere $30 per hour and the appearance of a rare Pokémon caused hundreds of players to gather in Central Park to try to catch it.

The high level of interest in the game is likely due to a combination of factors, a perfect popularity storm of different appeals to our human nature. For those of us over the age of 20, Pokémon Go piques our sense of nostalgia. Nintendo first came out with a version of the game in 1996 with the television series, movies, and playing cards surging in popularity a few years later. So people were already fans when the new app hit the market on July 5th.

The adorable monsters give the game an approachability that attracts a range of audiences, including younger children as well as gamers and nongamers alike. Also encouraging players to continue engaging with the app is the opportunity to collect rewards as they progress to new levels in the form of Pokéballs and potions. Studies show that gamers are more likely to engage with apps that have rewards even though those rewards have only a virtual existence.

Also, as the tagline “Gotta Catch ‘Em All!” suggests, we inherently like to collect and categorize things. Filling out our collections provides us with a sense of accomplishment and we can take this particular collection with us everywhere that we go. The task of finding many of the monsters is easy enough that the goal is attainable, but the large variety of Pokémon as well as the existence of more elusive species maintain our interest. The original game had 151 monster species but the series of sequels have increased that number to over 700.

What Is Augmented Reality?

Likely the main reason for the app’s popularity, however, is its use of so-called augmented reality. Augmented reality involves overlaying computer-generated images onto our real world surroundings sometimes by, in the case of Pokémon Go, using the GPS tracker in your smartphone. An augmented reality is distinctly different from a virtual reality which replaces the real world with a completely computer-generated version.

Thus by tapping into the use of augmented reality, Pokémon Go becomes a more active endeavor. Players are exploring their, albeit augmented, surroundings and doing it in groups. Game play is similar to geocaching, a neighborhood hunt for hidden treasure, except with virtual instead of physical rewards.  


About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.

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