Jul 15, 2016
THEME: Point of View

Beyond Escapism: Pokemon, Augmented Reality, and the Future of Urban Design

The mobile game Pokémon Go has exploded after having been released just over a week ago. The game already has more downloads than other massive names on the market such as Candy Crush, Tinder, Lyft, and LinkedIn. In terms of utilization, the app is getting more daily activity on Android phones than Twitter and is a fraction of a percent behind Snap Chat. The game holds massive opportunities for retailers and malls while posing challenges to property owners.

Stories have popped up all over about the dangers of the game, as well. Two men fell off a cliff while playing it, Cybercriminals have a new avenue of fraud, people are driving while playing, and petty theft is taking advantage as well.

The merits of the game may be debatable depending on your personality, your generation, and what your childhood looked like (cue the nostalgia factor for those born in the late 80s to early 90s), but one thing is for certain: The game is massive and ubiquitous. With so many millions of people playing across the U.S. and now Europe, it has quickly become a cultural staple for Millennials and the media. Pokémon Go is essentially the first game of its type (integration of augmented reality and geolocation), however, there are sure to be copycats to follow. AR (augmented reality) actively uses technology to modify a user’s surrounding environment, effectively blending the digital world with built form and natural elements. As this sort of hybrid reality becomes increasingly integrated into our world, how will it impact how we design cities and civic spaces?

Pokémon Go has already given us a pretty good idea of what this sort of tech can do in a spatial context, especially at an urban scale. To get a better picture of this, you need to understand the basics of the game.

Pokémon are creatures that you can capture using a little round object called a Pokéball. There are a large variety of Pokémon and, as the game’s slogan goes, your goal is to “Catch ‘em All!” To catch Pokémon, you have to find them, and the only way to do that is to put on a pair of comfy shoes and start walking around your community. The game’s algorithm is really good at putting different types of Pokémon in environments that suit them as well (waterloving Pokémon are found near rivers and lakes for instance), which encourages players to explore their environments. Pokéstops are actual physical locations, often landmarks, which give you bonuses and goodies and are extremely common. A regular city block may have dozens. Pokémon Gyms are locations where you can challenge other players to Pokémon Battles, where two players duel to see who has caught better Pokémon and trained them better.

Our Chicago office in the Wrigley Building sits on the Chicago River, home to architecture boat tours and Magikarp.

Our office in the Wrigley Building sits on the Chicago River, home to both architecture boat tours and Magikarp.

The understanding of place and context is integral to this game. Therein lies the true integration of urban design and Pokémon Go. In 1960, Kevin Lynch published The Image of the City and proposed that cities were made up of five parts: Paths, Edges, Districts, Nodes and Landmarks. In short, Paths move people around, Edges set boundaries within space, Districts define collective identity, Nodes become focal points within space, and Landmarks are large identifying features we use to orient ourselves.

When Lynch wrote this text, he understood that these elements he highlighted were not fixed, but, all the same, these identities were thought to have relative permanence and social ubiquity. With the advent of Pokémon Go, app developers can now manufacture these elements in real time – AR gives us the capacity to alter and manipulate these space identities in unique ways, instantly.

AR capitalizes on existing spatial identities. The Cincinnati Zoo set up dozens of Pokéstops within the park in hopes of cashing in on the trend to boost attendance. A group of Pokémon Go players are planning an event at the Chicago Zoo in a week, and currently 10,000 people are planning to attend. Other cities have followed suit, with well-known parks, public spaces, and neighborhoods becoming the focal point of large gatherings of people to play the game together.

Pokémon Go presents the new opportunity to actively alter the perception of space in real time as well. Rewarding players with “Easter Eggs” encourages exploration and engagement. This gives designers even more capacity to engage the end user, alter perception of space, and encourage activity within a space. Earlier today I stopped by 330 North Wabash (formerly IBM Plaza), which is a Mies Van Der Rohe building and the last that he completed before his death. Pokémon Go informed me of the designer and height of the building in the app when I stopped there to pick up some loot! Other spaces highlight public art, unique businesses or storefronts, and historic spaces.


Tools like these could be used to activate vacant lots, attract people to new destinations, or simply bring life to a tired space. Making people more aware of physical hidden treasures through mechanisms, Pokéstops seem viable for tourist attractions. The game also allows for purchases of lures to attract Pokémon to a specific location. This, in turn, attracts more players to a space, effectively creating a hotspot for a short duration. Using these tools to bolster support for pop-up markets and parks appears valuable for community interventions. It’s not too different from the goal of Chicago’s Wabash Lights project, for example—but the low level of commitment and simplicity of implementation make it far more versatile and flexible.

The concern of some is that the game perpetuates the idea that one must “stare at a screen” in order to experience the world. This notion—as well as the risk of endangerment due to distraction—are hardly new. The overwhelming number of people I have interacted with regarding their Pokémon Go experiences have found the game profoundly social, both digitally and physically. Finding yourself in your neighborhood with a bunch of strangers chasing the same Pokémon is exciting and sparks conversation. People are going on pub crawls with the goal of socializing and catching Pokémon. The common interest of the game overlapping with spatial proximity creates spontaneous interactions that otherwise would have never happened—and that is a really exhilarating thing.

As design begins to mingle with this new tech, I see an increased demand for interesting and engaging physical spaces. Some of our greatest public spaces and landmarks have become the playground of this tech overnight. As foot traffic begins to explore new spaces, design is sure to follow; there is a real avenue for walkability advocates within AR. The flexibility of pop-up spaces and the frequency of pop-up gatherings seem more likely, again, which will likely feed into demand for walkability. Lastly, this innovation seems destined to integrate with software we already use like Google Maps or Waze. As it does, it opens up huge opportunities for designers to convey details about spaces and designs to others as they go about their business, even if that business is catching Pokémon.

The author, and a neighboring Magikarp

The author at work, with a neighboring Magikarp. Image courtesy of Director of Digital Practice Nick Cameron.

  1. Carri Burgjohann
    10:18 am on July 15, 2016 | Reply

    Thanks for sharing, Tom! Reading this was really uplifting for my brain–I miss academics! Thinking of these concepts as applied to a city such as Chicago versus where I’m sitting right now (a small restaurant in a quaint suburb of Cincinanti) is quite a dichotomy but the core ideas re: city planning and structure (as well as Pokemon) can be equally seen here.

  2. Gavin Schaefer
    12:33 pm on July 15, 2016 | Reply

    Here in Vancouver, our police department has already issued a warning against playing (and it isn’t even technically released in Canada yet)


    Very disruptive potential!

  3. Emmanuel Melendez
    1:30 pm on July 15, 2016 | Reply

    Since the first couple of minutes using Pokémon Go on my phone, I knew that was going to be a revolution in urban planning/design and in public spaces. Traveling around North America by more than two years, I noticed something in common in many cities and towns: urban spaces and public activities are making people bored. In urban design, the design of more places with benches, statues and restaurants are not going to attract a new generations that is growing with digital/smart technologies. In my trips, I have seen how public spaces with digital art are powerful tools to attract people.

  4. 8:55 am on July 16, 2016 | Reply

    Great assessment of potential impact of the game, Tom. Was interesting to see the late night crowds chasing around Grrenville, SC this week while my oldest daughter was seeking out Pokeman in Zilker Park in Austin.

    • Tom Seiple
      9:32 am on July 18, 2016 | Reply

      Stephen, having now played for a week, I too have seen really interesting crowd interactions due to the game and the mechanics. Businesses are embracing it as a marketing tool, park spaces have used it to gather attention to spaces, people are meeting strangers and having dialog over the context of the game.

      The best example I saw this weekend came through on my Snapchat feed this weekend. On Sunday THOUSANDS of people gathered at Millennium Park to play and the social elements of that gathering were almost parade like. Costumes, themed food, chanting, singing… it was unbelievable. All of this was organized by normal people, not game developers, using Twitter to get people to collectively play in the same space. Pretty wild!

  5. Tami Conway
    11:55 am on July 22, 2016 | Reply

    Tom, this article was very enlightening, it opens ones mind to the possibilities in regards to architecture and landscapes in general. the possibilities are almost endless. great article, thank you for helping to change my view towards the game. This could potentially be a great social activity for the young people whom have been allowed and or been raised to become anti social and withdrawn from society due to the acceptance of video games. I am parent (step son) of a young man whom has become anti social due to continually playing games and it is a shame as his potential in life is suppressed do to his fear or misunderstanding of how to be social. this I believe will teach those young people how to become more social and learn how to engage people ultimately teaching them the skill of communication.

  6. Bridget Lesniak
    11:09 am on July 29, 2016 | Reply

    First, thank you for explaining the game and why it’s important; what the possibilities may be for AR. How cool that we have the technology now to facilitate so many people meeting in Millennium park to play the game. My kids grew up with Pokeman and we used to draw pictures them together (how old school!). I think I’m going to have to play the game and look for my favorite, Pikachu.

  7. Kate Kerbel
    8:36 am on August 9, 2016 | Reply

    Thanks for the article! I have definitely found it fascinating how this is changing the way people interact with cities. My friends who visited NYC this past weekend from Texas definitely found their way through the city and learned things through the game! Excited to see what comes next.

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