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After Pokémon Go: How augmented reality is rewriting the city


It may already be in decline, but Pokémon’s cartographic fiction is now fact, and is throwing up different understandings of property and public/private ownership

The massively successful launch of Pokémon Go - Niantic’s location-based, augmented reality mobile game - has provided many people with their first real experience of augmented reality (AR). With Pokémon appearing before the player, and a map that includes nearby Pokémon and in-game locations, the game creates an environment-spanning logic that forms entirely new functions and spaces. In doing so, Go encourages us to wonder how this game, and AR technology generally, might change our cities.

Twenty years since Pokémon’s invention, Pokémon Go was developed by Niantic: a one-time Google project which creates apps built upon Google mapping software. Go borrows location data from their first game, Ingress, and maps from Google to create its own Gyms and Pokéstops, the network upon which much of the game functions. The result is an urban landscape defined by monuments – in-game locations (Pokéstops and Gyms) are found at landmarks: galleries, notable architecture, landscape features, shops, a great many pubs. Cities are inevitably better then, for they hold far more Pokéstops, and this encourages players to explore, to learn about their surroundings. This works remarkably well: in any London park it’s easy to spot players gathering, comparing catches, following Pokémon. It’s a game that requires walking, necessitates exploring, and enables social interaction.

But the benefits of this landmark system for tourism have been quickly seized upon: if a business can position itself under a Pokéstop they’re guaranteed an influx of players seeking somewhere to sit. Galleries, shops and parks, even the Church of England, have attempted using it to lure visitors. Meanwhile, McDonald’s has become the game’s first sponsor, with all their Japan stores now either a Gym or a Pokéstop. The game becomes a tool for increasing footfall, for monitoring and manipulating players’ consumer habits. It’s certainly augmented some property prices: TripAdvisor offers Pokémon-based suggestions, and various real estate listings have gone so far as to include the availabilities of rare Pokémon, Pokéstops and Gyms.

In other instances, however, Niantic has been petitioned to remove in-game features from places. This forces us to question the game’s use of locations and data, and the ethics of re-appropriating spaces. Washington’s Holocaust Museum, for example, has requested the game not be played there, suggesting it’s inappropriate. Meanwhile, authorities have asked for the Fukushima nuclear plant and surrounding area to be removed from the game, for fear of players wandering in unwittingly.

‘It lends a new narrative to the act of walking, an unexpected benefit to getting lost. This is, perhaps, the equivalent of the dérive in the age of Google Maps’

And the game certainly encourages such a distracted wandering: phone up, stopping suddenly with the appearance of a Pokémon, haphazardly changing direction in an attempt to follow those listed as close. It lends a new narrative to the act of walking, an unexpected benefit to getting lost. This is, perhaps, the equivalent of the dérive in the age of Google Maps. And it certainly has benefits: it’s been noted how many people have claimed Go has helped with depression, encouraging them to exercise outside, and talk to like-minded people. It’s important to note just how many people undertake their gaming journeys together.

But these new walks haven’t pleased everyone: some people have begun requesting the exclusion of their property from the game, claiming the app threatens their privacy. Most extreme was a lawsuit filed in California, arguing that by placing Pokéstops and Gyms on private homes, Niantic had ‘used’ people’s property without permission. For such people the last month has been an interesting one: there have been plenty of anecdotes of strangers loitering, sometimes gathering outside, even asking for entry to the property. Weird conversations ensue between the house owner, and people declaring they ‘own’ the Gym located there. Each is correct in their way: Pokémon’s cartographic fiction is now fact, but these are clearly different understandings of property. In some anecdotes, the house owners have felt threatened, wanted them gone – in others, this colliding of property has led to an unusual loosening of rigid public/private boundaries between the house and the street, as residents go out of their way to chat to players.



Pokémon Go’s affect on the city is made manifest by signs warning players not to play and drive, or forbidding the catching of pokemon at certain hours

It can affect wider communities too: a suburban park in Sydney found itself hosting three Pokéstops, and subsequently crowds of players, leading to vandalism and vastly higher noise levels. Local residents reported the space as unusable. This raises difficult questions of entitlement: public space is there for any and all, including those who play Pokémon Go – but how to reconcile this with those uses deemed ‘normal’, or of the ‘real world’? Go was created by bringing together data from Google and Ingress, and changing the purposes and parameters by which it is used. Is it ethical of Niantic to undertake such a sweeping recycling of location data, without considering the impact of its new application?

It seems fair to suggest that Niantic must bear some responsibility for the impact their app has on neighbourhoods – and they appear to agree, having recently started removing select Pokéstops and Gyms. But this is undoubtedly just one of the first of many AR technologies that will influence our public spaces, and it will become increasingly complicated to mediate their effects. The material world, the world of Pokémon Go, the world created by every future AR app: each is capable of producing its own shifting logic, and each contains, produces and is subject to politics regarding the use of public space.

‘Pokémon Go creates its own particular reality: a logic that activates space in certain manners, reinforces various normative behaviours, while subverting others’ 

If we are to consider the world-spanning logic of Pokémon Go, it’s worth looking for what this augmented reality chooses not to show. For example, there’s no consideration for economic or social forces. This is hardly surprising – few maps feature such things, and no one would look to Pokémon for such information. But the emergence of big data and social media has caused a growth in such cartographic enterprises, one that’s bound to influence future AR apps. As such, we can still learn from Go: most notably, from the distribution of Pokéstops and Gyms. In London you’re surrounded by hundreds, while in smaller towns or rural areas, there might only be a couple in sight. More importantly, the frequency of Pokémon appearances is linked to population density. Turns out, we have a London Pokémon-catching elite too. The meandering, walking-pace travel favoured by the game is best suited to cities and their pavements: try walking down a countryside lane or a large carriageway and it’s downright dangerous. And that’s without considering the poor GPS or data coverage in rural areas. So the game suggests a normative, ideal method of travel and model of living.

It’s here that we begin to see the potential held by AR technology. Pokémon Go creates its own particular reality: a logic that activates space in certain manners, reinforces various normative behaviours, while subverting others. And crucially, each future AR software and technology release will create alternatives, each capable of appropriating spaces and actions differently. While each of us has our own subjective understanding and perspective on the world, formed of our opinions, experiences and emotions, this technology offers, for the first time, the opportunity to realise our world view in discrete, digital terms. Social media, news feeds, music streams, whatever: they each alter the space around us, creating an individual world to which only our smartphone, glasses and so on are the border.

Whether it be on Google Glass, Microsoft HoloLens, or the ubiquitous smartphone, location-based augmented reality apps enable us to gather together the influences, contacts, interests and preferences that shape our lives. An older Niantic project, the Field Trip app, suggests interesting places dependent on your location, and chosen filters. Choose the ‘SPARK Women on the Map’ filter and your city walk becomes a reality orientated upon sites of note for women’s history. Download apps encouraging the recording and tracking of incidents of police abuse or sexual harassment, and daily life becomes an act of subversive action, even policing the police. At the current Venice Biennale American Pavilion, use of the Layar app will reveal a protest exhibition plastered over the original. Created by the Detroit Resists group, the augmented-reality exhibit is designed to protest against the ‘political indifference’ of the projects chosen for the pavilion. So not only can you choose the content you see at a gallery, you can choose the political narrative you’re presented with. The recent trend towards VR and AR hardware will undoubtedly result in most of these finding their way to headsets (Field Trip already has a Glass app). Combined with the inevitable music and visual streams, it makes for a highly individualistic and sensorial digital reality.

‘Dominant social norms can be challenged in as many ways as there are apps, and each time, public space is made anew’

So how might we recognise the cities of the future? What becomes of public space once we’re each installed in our own digital realities? As these technologies improve, the city will become an ever more complex place: full of Pokémon, certainly, but full of countless other worlds too. And each of these brings its own practices, its own values. Dominant social norms can be challenged in as many ways as there are apps, and each time, public space is made anew. Groups of teenagers huddled on street corners in suburban residential areas may draw the ire of locals who don’t expect to see strangers wandering through. But in a world accessed through Pokémon Go, it’s entirely logical. A public square may be a Pokémon Gym to one person, a feminist landmark to another, a political forum for a third, and a work of digital locative art to the last. How can such highly individuated experiences be mediated, or these overlaying spaces policed? Regardless, such scenarios demonstrate how AR stands to influence public space, by enabling near-countless reactivations and re-appropriations.

Pokémon Go may just be an entertaining diversion, but it signals an important future for how augmented reality is changing our cities. Augmented reality offers an individualistic formulation of public space, capable of catering to the needs and desires of each user through endless choice, but potentially sacrificing the benefits of having the shared space that existed originally. The high cost of the hardware establishes a further boundary, cutting off these new public spaces from many. If AR promises this polarised, fractured future, perhaps we should look to games such as Go for alternatives. Other apps suggest genuine opportunity for technologically mediated political and social change. But Pokémon Go, with its playfulness, its mindfulness of communication and the simple joy to be found in exploring our environments collaboratively, demonstrates how technology can also utilise and complement our cities to create new spaces of activity and affinity.

Lead Image:

A Pokémon Training Bench on the campus of the University of The Pacific, Stockton, California. Photograph by Derrell McCain / Alamy Stock Photo