Since launching just over a week ago, Pokemon Go has become one of the most widely used apps of all time. It has been downloaded on nearly 6 percent of Android devices. Users spend an average of 43 minutes on the app (more than Instagram, Snapchat, or WhatsApp). “Pokemon Go” is currently more searched than porn.

This critical mass of engaged users also indicates a new era for tech: Augmented reality has officially been embraced by the real world.

Though Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and other VR headsets dominated headlines in the early part of this year, Pokemon Go’s augmented reality captured millions of users around the world. And that means developers, startups and other companies will scramble to make their own augmented reality applications in hopes of capturing this new audience. So what will the world look like with an additional layer of reality?

Northern Illinois University professor David Gunkel, an expert on tech and ethics, has a few ideas. In this interview, we discuss how Pokemon Go surpassed the virtual reality hype, how augmented reality impacts our sense of perception, and what challenges (and opportunities) lie ahead in an augmented reality world.

Chicago Inno: 2016 was supposed to be the year for virtual reality but Pokemon Go, an augmented reality game, is the breakout star. Why did augmented reality catch on so quick?

David Gunkel
David Gunkel

David Gunkel: For the past year or so, everything in the world of tech seemed to be moving in the direction of virtual reality (VR). There was Google cardboard, the poor-man’s VR head mounted display; Samsung Gear VR, which turned the average smartphone into an immersive VR experience; and Oculus Rift, Facebook’s recently acquired prize and the gold standard for commercial VR. But Pokemon Go’s approach to augmented reality (AR) beat everyone of them. And the question is why?

The answer has nothing to do with technology; it is about cleverly designed and implemented content. The new VR equipment, even Google’s seemingly low-tech cardboard, were impressive new display technologies that provided users with a totally immersive experience, transporting their senses to another time and/or place. But the problem with these VR devices is that the development effort was exclusively focused on the device. Once you had Oculus Rift, the question was, what to do with it? So we had impressive display devices but almost no content to be displayed. What Niantic did with Pokemon Go is put its attention not on new hardware (which had been Nintendo’s business strategy up to this point) but into rich and interesting content. They leveraged a well-known and immensely popular game and then expanded the “game space” to include reality. It is a genius move on their part. While all this impressive VR hardware awaits its killer app (the application that proves the technology), Pokemon Go leads with content and lets the hardware follow.

Augmented reality blurs the lines of reality, sometimes even more so than virtual reality, because it builds on top of the real world. What does this do to our sense of perception?

Yes, what we see with Pokemon Go is just the next step in the blurring of the boundary that had separated the virtual from the real world. At one time, we could be pretty sure about where “real reality” ended and “virtual reality” began; it was clearly indicated by the edge of the monitor frame. With augmented reality the line dividing the virtual world from the real world is becoming increasingly indistinguishable.

So what does this mean in terms of perception? It basically allows us to augment our experience of the real world by projecting data into it. In other words, by using various AR devices, from the standard smartphone to wearable tech like Google Glass, we can take data residing in the cloud and project it into our world. So, for example, as we encounter people on the street, the camera in our device can capture images of their faces, a wireless connection can allow the device to access facial recognition software residing in the cloud to find each individual on Facebook, and then this data can be downloaded to the device and overlaid on what we see out in the “real world.” This way each of the “strangers” who come walking past us now have an overlay of data: their name, their educational history, their place of orgin….all the data that is publicly available through a social media application like Facebook.

Is there any danger in blurring the lines of reality in this way?

Definitely. The example I just mentioned has all kinds of privacy complications. All of a sudden, information that had been restricted to one particular application and mode of experience can be exported and projected into the real world. And you can imagine that there maybe things you would rather not want to have readily accessible in this way. 

AR applications like Pokemon Go are really just another indication of how the world of data will not be contained within the device

But this is not the only problem. There will also be a “digital divide” with these new tools and applications. The term “digital divide” refers to the division between what the US Department of Commerce called the “information haves” and the “information have nots.” AR is certainly impressive technology, but it is not equally accessible to all people in all places. Consequently you will have individuals who are augmented with the knowledge and information provided by augmented reality occupying a world with other people who do not have access to the same devices and opportunities. There will be haves and have nots, and this division will most certainly have social, economic and political consequences.

What about opportunities?

The opportunities are compelling. With this kind of technology, we can better integrate the virtual world of data with the people, objects, and places in the real world. With AR, a map, for example, is no longer a data object (held on a piece of paper or in our mobile device). It can now be projected into the world in such a way as to let us see exactly how the data communicated on the map maps onto the territory itself. Consequently, AR applications like Pokemon Go are really just another indication of how the world of data will not be contained within the device and will continue to flow out of the virtual world into what we used to call reality.

For some this kind of “digital pollution” is a bad thing, because so much seems to depend on our ability to distinguish between the real and the virtual. Others find it to be a positive development insofar as we can now remake or “mod” reality to accommodate us. We can make our dreams a part of reality, if you want to put it that way. I, however, find all of this to be a continuation of what we have always done. All of our information technologies, from language to the computer, are about projecting data into the world. This is the human project. And AR is just one more step in this undertaking.