Augmented reality is not a new piece of technology. The term has existed in some form since the early 90s, and it has had practical effects for architects since at least 2008, when ArchDaily posted its first AR article about a plugin for Sketchup that allowed users to rotate a digital model around on their desk using just their bare hands. But these past few weeks, society was given its first glimpse of augmented reality’s potential to affect the way we interact with the places we occupy.
That glimpse, of course, has been provided by Pokemon GO, the location-based augmented reality mobile game that allows players to capture virtual creatures throughout the real world. With more many active daily users as Twitter and a higher daily usage time than social media apps like Snapchat, Instagram and Whatsapp, it cannot be denied that the game has captured our attention unlike anything that has come before it.
The result of that attention is that people have been driven out onto the streets on the hunt for Pokemon. And while it has been fun spotting our favorite characters in front of places we know and love on our phone screens, the true urban innovation has come thanks to the game’s user-generated map.
Primary to the function of the game is the designation of real-world landmarks as “Pokestops,” where players can obtain in-game items, and as gyms, where trainers can send out their Pokemon to battle against each other. These landmarks were selected through crowd-sourcing efforts by players of Ingress, an earlier AR location-based game whose platform was adapted for Pokemon GO. Using a human-powered mapping system has meant that important in-game locations aren’t limited to obvious buildings and monuments, but also show up at local favorites named things like “Famous Ray’s Pizza” or “The Face Above the Door” (A relief sculpture carved into the keystone of a doorway), and even a stop called “Flying Cat!” that appears to be a small piece of graffiti high up on the side of an apartment building (in fact, perhaps to the horror of Modernists, the largest number of non-building stops appear to be tied to ornate building details).
The consequence of this is that going out for a Poke-catching stroll has truly become a great way to discover the architectural and cultural intricacies that make a town, city or neighborhood unique. Even more obvious landmarks have seen an uptick in visitors. So many Pokemon players have flocked to the National Mall in Washington, DC that the National Park Service has encouraged Rangers to help people find Pokemon, and learn a thing or two about historical monuments while they’re at it. What the game has generated is a modern-day version of the Nolli plan, the famous 18th century drawing of Rome in which public spaces, both indoor and outdoor, stand out by being drawn as one continuous plane, with private spaces rendered in a dark poché. The Pokemon GO map, too, affords extra significance to public spaces by calling them out with a pokeball symbol.
But what effect will all this increased awareness end up having on our public spaces?
Unlike other real world functions, Pokemon GO uses very little in the way of resources (except for that precious server space). Pokemon GO requires no special equipment. There is no mess left behind as a result of the game, and nothing new is required of a destination to participate. All a Pokemon Go capable space requires is a wireless data connection. Because of this, aside from the occasional slow-moving individual with her face buried in her phone screen, the game places very little burden on the places where people are playing.
What we’re seeing is that the art museums, parks and department stores that have become Pokemon hotspots are much more capable of accommodating multiple uses than might have been expected. At art museums, for example, it appears that it's actually perfectly possible to have art appreciation and Pokemon happening side-by-side – as long as the activity doesn't actively encourage something which is antithetical to that place's regular function.
But not all Pokestops are created equal. While some of the more unique locations contain their own sort of novelty value, only the most accommodating stops will attract large groups of people to gather and play. And it turns out that what makes a Pokemon space successful is nothing new. It must be a nice open environment, have comfortable places to sit, and be easily accessible – nearly all of the same qualities of what makes any public space successful. But unlike traditional plazas, whose development is often dictated by historical or economic motives, the success of a Pokemon space is entirely democratic. They are the best spaces for gathering near where people actually live. What the technology provides us is a way of mapping how many people are using public places and for how long. In this respect, it is not unreasonable to believe that Pokemon Go will allow people to interrogate the design of public space in real life.
Town planning has actually always been an essential element of Pokemon games. In most of the fictional towns created for the core Pokemon games over the past 20 years, the Gym was the most important building, then the Pokecenter and Pokemart, then places like houses that often weren’t essential to the game but provided the fleshed-out characters and side stories that made the universe feel familiar and believable. This hierarchy of buildings was often reflected in the size of the buildings and the layout of the town. Now, this hierarchy has been overlaid onto real life public space, allowing us to question whether the way our neighborhoods are organized reflects the hierarchy they are intended to have.
But this is just the beginning. If the trailer of the game is to be believed, future gameplay additions may feature the ability to battle locally or to team up to accomplish tasks. The game already has the ability to recognize the difference between a public and private building; who’s to say it won’t evolve to attribute new functions to different types of spaces? Your local hospital could soon become a Pokecenter, your corner store a Pokemart. With each additional function embedded in the game, the more grounded it will be in its environment. If the game, as well as future apps inspired by it, continues to use crowd-sourcing methods to develop its map, people will be given the opportunity to increasingly influence the places the occupy, without having to spend a dime.
Pokemon GO is simply the first of what will surely be many augmented reality applications that will impact how real-world space functions. And because of its user-generated map, public space is being treated with a reverence perhaps not seen since 16th century Rome. Technology has created new ways of bringing people together. Now, it may allow groups new ways of influencing the spaces they occupy as well.