The computer screen is a looking glass into a virtual world, said American engineer Ivan Sutherland, the first – in 1968 – to build a head-mounted display (HMD) with which to see computer-generated images.
How that looking glass became an ever richer and more engaging and accessible window in so many different ways – from computer monitor to mini-screen on a mobile phone and from head-mounted display to lightweight pair of glasses – is a long and fascinating story. The idea of total immersion in a virtual world may have recently resurfaced with Facebook’s clear commitment in this direction but a totally different approach to the issue is based on the idea that reality should not be replaced by shutting ourselves inside an HMD but “augmented” with information, texts and images superimposed on the real world. This was, after all, Sutherland’s initial project and the dream behind the renowned Google Glass (which never made it to the market). Microsoft is also investing heavily in this direction with the HoloLens, smartglasses that will allow us to see 3D images fluctuating in real space and be available to the corporate market in the coming months.
While both virtual and augmented reality technologies are still seeking a serious target market (in the early days of research in this field, people were describing virtual reality as “a solution in search of a problem”), a game just released in Europe and about ten days ago elsewhere in the world is rocking the whole scenario. Pokémon Go is an unprecedented success available as an app for iOS and Android. It has surpassed Twitter for the number of daily users and WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat and Messenger for the amount of time spent using it (43 minutes a day on average, according to American research company Similar Web).
Devised by Niantic – an internal Google start-up and the creator of Google Earth but now independent – in collaboration with Nintendo and The Pokémon Company, the game exploits geolocation technology and augmented reality to transfer the famous mini-monsters created in 1996 to the real world. To hunt them down, you must move – a great deal – along streets and in public places and natural environments. Only by leaving your home can you encounter the creatures and see them on your phone screen in your actual situation. So you may, as this writer did, encounter one in the garden of your apartment block or inside your car. Once sighted, the Pokémon must be caught and, to do this, you need Poké Balls, small spherical devices that can be used to capture it.
Again, the only way to obtain these is to look around you and find a PokéStop, which typically corresponds to a monument or place of interest, point your phone at it and take what you need. When you have seized enough Pokémons and feel ready, you can start fighting in gyms scattered all over towns and cities, allowing your creatures to challenge adversaries there. The Pokémon ecosystem is immense, with more than 700 types of monsters, evolutions from one form to another of the single species, complex combat strategies, potions, aromas and baits. A small part of all this complexity is not found in the Go version, which some enthusiasts see as oversimplified, for example as regards combats, but the game must be credited for permanently throwing open a window that had previously remained the prerogative of a fairly small public to a huge user pool.
Augmented reality apps will proliferate – just think of the QR codes which, when targeted by a mobile phone camera, pull up information and images superimposed on what you are looking at – and some games had already proposed situations straddling the real and the virtual, one of the best known being Ingress, also developed by Niantic. Nothing, however, has come close to the global success of Pokémon Go which encourages people to travel around the streets holding their mobile phones and hunting monsters as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Behind this apparent simplicity lies an extremely complex technological set-up.
The city maps, for example, are those of Google and almost millimetrically precise, interaction with characters is fast and fluid, and the combat commands are quite intuitive. Certainly, to advance through the gaming levels and make a good impression in the gyms demands commitment but it takes very little to have a bit of fun as you are walking around. So, you may find yourself constantly shifting your gaze from phone screen to the surrounding environment in an endless game of differences between the real and the virtual that prompts you to look at things more attentively. As you search for PokéStops, you will discover places and details you never knew existed, or perhaps their names (one in Via San Michele del Carso in Milan corresponds to a small plaque commemorating a young partisan, Mario Greppi, never previously noticed in my frequent hasty passage along that street). With the pretext of seizing more tools for the game, you return again and again to PokéStops, discovering new details. I have never walked so close to the fountain outside my home as when I had to stock up on balls and potions. The PokéStop system creates a parallel geography of urban space and seems almost to impose its own value hierarchy. Details of places never previously considered when turned into PokéStops take on an importance of their own, like the hip hop graffiti on the newsstand, never before deemed worthy of note, and the small glass case in a remote country lane which had only been given a passing glance. It would be interesting to know the criteria that led the game’s creators to make such choices.
We do, indeed, catch ourselves looking around as we search for virtual images on the walls of our home or mistaking the multi-coloured writing on a lorry for a crushed Pokémon but, on the whole, the effect of the game seems very different from what you would expect. The search for monsters does not drive us to become isolated from reality but to see it through different eyes, as if discovering it for the first time which is after all – according to another virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier – the real purpose of virtual reality systems. After removing the HMD – explained Lanier in the 1990s – we look at the standard reality from a new angle. Who would have thought little Pokémons would be the ones to help us do so?
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