It’s 10 a.m., and I’ve run outside in my pajamas. I apologetically wave my way through two lanes of traffic and reach my destination–my local hot dog shop. Or, what was my local hot dog shop. Now, it’s a Pokéstop (a point of interest) in Pokémon Go, the same Pokémon franchise you’ve heard of and possibly played yourself, except on your smartphone–with all of the catchable monsters and battle gyms strewn throughout the real world.
Let’s be honest. I’m too old to be playing Pokémon. Heck, I was too old to be playing Pokémon when this anime-acceptable dogfighting was first popularized on the Gameboy in 1996. But with the smell of french fries and Italian beef sandwiches lingering in the humid Chicago July air, I feel my phone vibrate. I look down. And I see him: Pidgetto, a fierce-looking falcon with a British boy band haircut, flapping his wings bravely in the middle of traffic.
I flick the Pokéball on my screen at him. I miss. Cars whizz by. I worry he’s going to fly off. I flick the ball again. And then he’s trapped, a la Ghostbusters, for me to raise as my own vicious pet.
Suddenly, I’m in the company of countless other “trainers” who’ve picked up Pokémon Go in the last 24 hours and captured Pidgetto. A quick Twitter search reveals him lurking in bathrooms, at offices, and a (dubiously Photoshopped) strip club. However, the most impressive catch, no doubt, belongs to this Redditor, who spotted the bird while his wife was giving birth. Good luck with your bundle of joy, dad! Also, your new kid.
It would be easy to dismiss all of these shares as just the latest meme-able thing to hit the Internet (sure, spotting Charizard standing in line at the 7/11 is an Instagrammable moment by any estimation), or to explain the overloaded servers and the quickly growing list of real-world Go meet-ups as a short-lived phenomenon. But over the past decade, I’ve seen countless concepts like Go–ranging from iPad apps, to magazine covers, to Playstation games–all promising to combine the real and virtual worlds into some irresistible hybrid of pixels and our pudgy fingers. And I can’t name a single one that caught on. But take a look at the Internet’s reaction to Go, and you’ll see why this game is different. I think Pokémon Go is going to prove out to be the first, widely adopted implementation of augmented reality.
Why will Go succeed where so many others failed? Let’s look beyond the fact that the Pokémon franchise is one of the biggest in the world of video games, contributing to a large portion of Nintendo’s financial success over the last 20 years. The technology company behind Go, Niantic Labs, actually used to belong to Google, where it developed a game that tracked the coordinates of people across the world, allowing them to play simply by moving their location. In other words, Go actually represents years and years of development by a group of talented people who know what they’re doing.
Go also represents a very natural extension of Pokémon’s core game play. For the most part, all you really do in Pokémon is walk around looking for more Pokémon! The jump from a virtual to a real map might be a technical challenge that requires servers, high-speed data plans, camera technologies, and a whole lot of your smartphone’s battery, but it is the easiest of mental leaps. It’s why a recent Pokémon-based Google Maps April Fool’s joke went viral. Pokémon already had the map. Go is just projecting that fantasy world onto the real one.
But more than any of these points, I can’t help but to wonder if Go is just in the right place at the right time given the larger technological zeitgeist–where Microsoft is teasing virtual workspaces with Hololens, and Snapchat is hiring special effects masters to make its augmented reality selfies that much more stunning. We’re simply getting more and more used to the digital manipulation of everything we see through our phones’ screens. Periscope’s live streams are filled with floating hearts, Facebook Messenger lets you slap stickers onto any photo, and virgin Instagrams require a “#nofilter” hashtag, just to validate the genuine nature of a memory frozen in time.
Last week, I thought we were another 10 years out from the tantalizing future promised by Magic Leap, where giant digital whales will splash onto a K-12 gym floor without anyone getting wet or harmed. But as I approach a small puddle at the local playground, where Bellsprout’s roots seem to be taking a drink, I realize the more obvious point: We’re not fast-approaching our augmented future. It’s already caught us.
All Images: Niantic, Inc./Pokémon/Nintendo