Pokémon STOP

You can’t. Stop Pokémon GO, that is. People can’t stop walking around trying to capture Pokémon, even if it means stepping off the curb and walking into traffic. UPS drivers received a special alert this week to look out for kids not paying attention in the street because they were trying to capture imaginary creatures. A woman hunting Pokémon in Wyoming found a dead body instead. At Auschwitz, authorities asked Nintendo to keep Pokémon out of their death camp.  There was a story of a fool caught cheating on his girlfriend because the geo-locating nature of the game revealed that he was hanging out with a special friend, and hunting Pokémon. A man was fired in Singapore for ranting when he wasn’t allowed to play at work.

Look, I’m not a fan of games. I didn’t care about Pokémon when it came out in 1996, as part of the Nintendo Game Boy system, which I also fervently did not care about. But this crazy event presages the power of AR, or Augmented Reality. It is also a lesson in timing, with so much bad news in the world right now, it is the perfect time for fantasy.

The idea of that fantasy is simple: The Pokémon you hunt are superimposed over the real world. Your phone camera can see Pokémon, and because of an ingenious combo of GPS and phones that have video cameras, another barrier between the real world and the digital world has melted away. Since your phone knows where you are, Nintendo knows where you are. This has led to privacy concerns, and people signing over their entire Google identity to Nintendo, but that’s another blog.

To see the good news in this (yes, I am working to grab something good out of this past few weeks’ bag of misery) AR creates a tech-real-world hybrid that we might actually want to inhabit. VR as it stands now is dead end, an escape from our reality and into another, profoundly dystopian. People I know who have tried an Oculus Rift device report an inner emptiness afterward, an inability to rejoin the rest of us.

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Soon, however, VR in its dystopian infancy will grow up to become an adolescent  AR, and AR has great promise for education. Google Expedition has kids going on virtual education adventures without leaving the classroom. The New York Times has experimented with Google Cardboard, a cardboard (yes!) VR box that works with your cellphone to create immersive experiences. When there is a cardboard AR device, or if Magic Leap makes something that is not boys-with-their toys expensive, it will open new worlds for many people. To succeed, AR must position itself in the spectrum between geeky-obscure and stupid-entertaining. Let me explain that.

Google Glass failed because it was too expensive, had a geekily elitist soul, and made people look like faux-Terminators who were calculating distance-to-target before going in for the kill. People who used Google Glass were called Glassholes. Does that say it all?

On the other side of the spectrum from geeky-obscure is stupid-entertaining. That’s where Pokémon GO sits. The point of the game is to drain your bank account chasing imaginary creatures and have fun doing it. There are side benefits, too. People have been walking more, and they have been going outside and looking at things like national parks, and they’ve been talking with people, even strangers.

Strange stuff, this AR. It has resulted in more human interaction. That doesn’t fit the tech-is-evil paradigm, but what the hell, AR is going to blow a lot of things up.

You’ll be able to walk through a museum and see artworks in the artists’ studio. You’ll be able to experience the science and engineering behind any architecture. Yes, with AR you will also play stupid games and yes, you will also have such an enhanced shopping experience you might want to puke. But Google says its Classroom platform is available to 10 million active student users, one in six classrooms in the US. Amazon has started up an online marketplace for education apps and teachers’ lesson plans. With powerhouse organizations like that behind it, AR could be good for education and information. The digital world and the real world will become even more connected, and students will benefit. People will learn more, walk more, and meet other people.

One of my favorite things to do these summer evenings is to aim my phone to the sky. A free sky-gazing app called SkyView shows me the names of all the stars, shows me that Mars is positioned right over the laundromat, just really far away, and that the International Space Station is in the floor, meaning that it is positioned on the other side of the planet. For me, that’s the potential of AR.