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.
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.