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Pokémon GO is our future

By the time you read this, the Pokémon GO phenomenon will undoubtedly have crested and begun to recede. But we are likely to have only begun to feel its effects. Its phenomenal adoption curve tells us that it is a well-designed game. So does the amount of time people are spending playing it. So does the set of people it’s gotten up off of couches and into the world (and occasionally into traffic).

But Pokémon GO is more than a game. It’s a reframing of mobile computers. They were screens. Now they’re windows.

Until Pokémon GO, our smartphones and tablets were primarily about content. We looked things up on them. We played games. We created texts or videos and shared them via social networking services. But the devices were about content, and that content lived within the rectangle of the screen.

Even when we use our mobile device to show us a map of where we’re driving, the device shows us where we are by plonking our car’s avatar onto a schematic of the road system. Pretty amazing, but it was a representation of our world squeezed within a small frame.

The endless information we want to encounter

Pokémon GO lets us use our mobile devices to see the world itself. It is a window, and, unlike real windows, shows us the invisible presences within our world. In this case it’s Pokémon characters, but in the next case it will be anything that Augmented Reality can dream up.

Personally, I have trouble reading maps, even interactive ones like Google Maps. So I want to see an avatar—my preference would be a disinterred Microsoft Clippy—walking about 15 feet ahead of me when I’m using my Google Maps to guide me along city sidewalks. My avatar will walk where I’m supposed to walk, gesture if I need to turn and wave me in the right direction when I start to go wrong. If I pause, maybe he’ll gesture in case I’m lost or will offer to point out items of interest around me. At his very very worst, he’ll try to sell me stuff. Bad Clippy! Bad!

Maybe I’ll be able to see historic ghosts who will tell me about the history of the city. Almost definitely I’ll be able to make everyone I see look like they’re dressed like pirates.

We don’t know what people will build because they haven’t built it yet. But they will. And there will be no shortage of offerings because the amount of information we might want to encounter attached to the real world is endless. After all, most of the information we care about is about people, places and things in the world.

Virtual labels on the vista of buildings

The seamless mingling of information and the world is hardly new. We’ve been doing it since we first marked our path by piling some rocks along the way. Over the centuries we’ve turned signage into a science, learning how to work within standardized vocabularies of shapes and sizes to make information clear. We’ve even learned how to violate that vocabulary in order to grab people’s attention.

And we’ve used our mobile devices as viewers before. For example, for years we’ve been able to download apps that show us the night sky above us with the constellations labeled. You can even use these apps to look down at the ground and see what people on the other side of the world are gazing up at. But these apps aren’t quite where Pokémon is—and where Microsoft Hololens hopes to be—for they show us a graphic representation of the stars, not the actual stars above us.

That’s fine for stars, but I’m still waiting to be able to hold my phone up to the cityscape and see virtual labels on the vista of buildings. “Oh,” I’ll be able to say, “that odd round building on the horizon is the old Henderson Building. I thought they tore that down years ago.” Then I’ll put my arm around Clippy and turn down a digital advertising flier from a shimmering virtual Wilma Flintstone.

Eavesdrop on virtual ghosts

It’s impossible to know exactly how this is going to shake out in the long run. Perhaps Pokémon GO will acclimatize us to the embodiment of information in the real world, but we’ll prefer to achieve that by putting on some version of Google Glass. Perhaps a new generation of mobile devices will be built specifically for augmenting reality. Perhaps visual presence will be too distracting but we’ll find it perfectly acceptable to pipe virtual sounds into our ears so that we can eavesdrop on the digital ghosts precisely placed in our auditory surroundings.

However it develops, I doubt we’re going to step away from the manifestation of digital information in the physical world. We never have before.

David Weinberger is a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, e-mail david@weinberger.org.

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