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Pokemon Go and the animation of public space

The wild popularity of Pokemon Go, the augmented reality game, offers compelling lessons for economic developers about the potential for animating public space

Alissa Sklar
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on July 21, 2016
Alissa Sklar
Vice President of Marketing

The wild popularity of the recently released augmented reality game, Pokemon Go, speaks to the powerful ways digital technologies can enhance daily life. Moreover, this summer's cultural phenomenon offers some compelling lessons for economic developers about the potential for animating public space. 


For the uninitiated, Pokemon Go pairs the fictional characters from the original Nintendo game onto smartphone technology. In order to catch new Pokemon, players have to physically travel new locations, where the animated figures are layered on to Google Maps. You might find a Squirtle outside your favorite coffee shop, or a Ponyta in the fountain outside city hall. Players throw Pokeballs at the creatures, which you can then train. New Pokeballs are available at designated Pokestops around town. (Still confused? Click here to learn more.)

 Flickr Creative Commons Sadie Hernandez

This explains the legions of people stumbling around town with their eyes glued to their smartphones (burning through their data plans and their battery life). The popularity of the game with people of all ages means people have left their homes and desks to move around in the real world, since that's the only way to play. Since the release of the game on July 6th, Nintendo has seen its stock market value soar, and use of the game has since surpassed Netflx, Tinder, Twitter and Pandora. 


The augmented reality technology speaks to the exciting ways people can use the animation of public spaces, and this has real bearing for economic developers everywhere. It asks us to think creatively about how we can use digital technologies to promote the experience and understanding of real places. Pokemon Go will almost certainly burn out as quickly as it sprung up, but what lasting lessons can we learn from it?


Enhanced information. Digital technologies enable us to use data strategically to enhance and enrich lived experience: Google Maps has made it so much easier to navigate through the world, apps such as Word Lens translate signs in foreign languages in real time through your smartphone camera, and ZoomProspector.com lets businesses instantly search the entire U.S. for the business location that matches their specific needs. It's been convincingly argued that the prosthetic brain that is Google, the geolocation ease offered by our apps, the ability to communicate across great distance - all of these superhuman abilities now easily and affordably offered by technology - make us all cyborgs. Not the scary Terminator kind, but the everyday miracle kind. We can all do things that would have seemed impossible 15 years ago.


Technology can make places relevant. This is something we've worked hard to do over the years with our interactive online data tools, but the animation of real spaces in real time takes it to a whole new levels. Small businesses and tourist landmarks are learning the value of throwing down Pokemon lures in key places, in order to draw crowds of Pokemon Go players who may then decide to buy a slice of pizza, check out the displays in your window, or discover something new in a place they may not otherwise have visited. Businesses can buy lures with very affordable Pokecoins (read more here). Some businesses find themselves unexpectedly benefitting from the lucky coincidences of having PokeStops or Gyms nearby and setting up posters or sales strategies based on the game.


We've seen some creative use of augmented reality and virtual reality already. Yelp's Monocle feature allows people to view links and ratings for the businesses around them through their smartphones, while apps have been created to let let visitors view the history of the Berlin Wall on location through their smartphones, find the nearest Tube station in London, or "jump" through time portals to learn about Cologne, Germany with their TimeWarp app.


Gamification. This is a lesson we are learning over and over again. When you make things fun, encourage people to collect points and allow them to build skills and "level up," it can be incredibly motivating. Scientists have used this to collect information on croplandslibraries have used it to encourage teens to read over the summer, and universities have used to encourage more engaged participation from students. Playing Pokemon Go has an added, unanticipated benefit of teaching players the names and locations of area landmarks as they search their geography for Pokestops and gyms. 


Pokemon Go offers economic developers a renewed challenge to animate their public spaces in ways that resonate, to support and nurture existing businesses, to attract new ones, to create new jobs and stimulate their area economy. And while the answer may not lie with the elusive Pikachu, it does leave the door open for imaginative solutions. If you've been using technology in innovative ways in your community, email me at asklar@gisplanning.com to let me know more - I'd love to include your EDO in an upcoming blog. 

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