Augmented reality is here, and is already having a strong impact on everyone, including those who never played a video game in their lives and never heard about augmented reality.
Pokemon Go, a smartphone game that lets users catch imaginary figures of Pokemon (pronounced the same way in plural) on real streets, has become a global phenomenon in just a couple of weeks. It is dominating the Appstore, already boasts more users than Tinder and Twitter, and will be officially launching in the UK in a matter of days. Millions of gamers who got out of their rooms to browse through the real cities in search of virtual monsters mark the beginning of the new era for all of us, where the virtual and real worlds collide. And judging by the news from the past week, no one is ready for this collision and it will likely be quite painful.
The game in a nutshell
Pokemon Go uses the player's smartphone GPS data (similar to Google Maps) and camera to navigate them across the real streets and parks of the city or village in search for little virtual monsters. As a player moves along, she comes across different Pokemon, which she needs to capture. Some physical locations in the cities have been labelled by Niantic Inc, a Google split-off behind the game, as Pokestops -- places, where gamers can collect tools to capture more Pokemon. Players can also purchase the "lure modules" and place them in a Pokestop, which will attract the virtual figures to their area for 30 minutes, so they can capture even more Pokemon.
Once a player collected her Pokemon, she can train them in a local "gym" to get stronger and fight with Pokemon of other players.
Many gamers are enthusiastically sharing on social media that they are finally motivated to get into the streets instead of sitting in their homes, in search of new Pokemon, and even make real friends with strangers, who are on the hunt for monsters.
So why should you care? At the end of the day, this all sounds like an innocent fun for teenagers and kidults, who refuse to grow up. Except that it is not, and has already affected many more people around who have nothing to do with gaming.
What's going on?
The first worrying news is, of course, that the number of people staring at their phone screens all the time, while walking in the streets, will increase disproportionally. There have already been multiple reports of smaller and larger injuries, with players damaging themselves while trying to get a virtual figure and not noticing the traffic or change in the landscape. Drivers will now have to be even more attentive, as there'll be more players crossing the streets chasing a Pokemon and ignoring the cars. Let's hope not many of them will be in the driving seat.
Second, and even more disturbingly, the in-game "lure" feature has already been already reported as used by criminals to attract the players into the less crowded places with many Pokemon and rob them. The police in the US, where the game was released among the first, issued a warning to "keep behaving as you would do in a normal environment", advising players not to go by themselves to remote places, where they can be attacked. Easier said than done when you're on the hunt for a Pikachu.
Third, the life rhythm of many people who had nothing to do with gaming was disrupted, as physical locations defined as Pokestops and "gyms" in the game attracted players who tried catching Pokemon at all times of the day, including at night. Imagine waking up at 3am and seeing a group of people across your house furiously tapping their phones. The Northern Territory Police, Fire and Emergency Services in Australia issued a request to players not to go hunting inside the police station. So far Niantic Inc has not established the process of complaining and changing locations.
What we've learned so far
Over the last two weeks, we got yet another confirmation that software companies have an immense power to change the behaviour not only of single individuals, but also that of the masses. By simply placing a virtual figure next to a particular point, they can move thousands of people without any effort, disrupting the lives of businesses and humans. They might not still realize their own power, which isn't good news, because it means they aren't realizing their responsibility. Or they might realize it and only use it to earn money. Not good news either, let alone the fact that this power can be easily used and abused by criminals.
While the media is busy republishing the same press-release saying that the Pokemon Go is helping the gamers get into the real world, and hence helps their mental state, it's only a small part of the truth. What we actually witnessed is that people's brains getting totally confused with augmented reality. And this is only the beginning.
When the gaming company suggests we should "behave as normal", but claiming that is a hypocrisy at its worst or a total lack of understanding of how the human brain works. We are wired to look for unusual things, and Pokemon with their bright colours will be the first that our brain identifies. Not the "dangers" in the real world.
We all have certain "spacial maps" in our brains, according to which we navigate. Our brain is used to identify the obstacles and measure the distance to them. By stopping to use our side eyesight while staring at our phones, and stopping to rely on our sense of spacial awareness that has been developing for thousands of years, we put ourselves in the immense danger in the real world. A mobile phone is not an object that is capable to replace all of our 5 senses, and yet in the current version of the augmented reality this is what it encourages our brain to do. Again, all attempts to say that "people should behave normally" are simply a lie - you can not behave normally when your brain is overwhelmed and you are not using your normal perception channels.
Augmented reality as it is presented through Pokemon Go is not enhancing your life experience and perception, it is depriving you of your capabilities to react to the threats and opportunities of the real world.
Then again, the dopamine affect. Dopamine, the hormone of pleasure also associated with all sorts of addictions, gets released when we discover something new and unusual - and Pokemon Go perfectly fits the bill.
Add to that parents, who are clueless about what sort of things their kids are doing on their phones, as they "don't get this tech stuff" and we get a pretty apocalyptic picture.
What shall we do?
Don't get me wrong, I am not trying to say that Pokemon Go is an ultimate evil and needs to be prohibited. In fact, it's a very average and a rather raw game, which will be on its peak for a few months, until it's displaced by other, more sophisticated games.
However, the game release showed us that the power has shifted. Software companies now have as much (if not more) power as policy makers, but they don't have policies and procedures to prevent the harm they might do, except of "issuing a warning", which isn't doing anything. Our minds and behaviours are impacted in the strongest possible way, and our daily lives might be affected even if we have nothing to do with the above. And the worst thing, we aren't realizing it and keep enthusiastically experimenting on millions of people.
Perhaps it's time that we recognize that technology isn't just about "people having fun" or companies just earning money, but is actually bringing massive shifts to how each of us lives and how our society operates. Perhaps it's time to start talking about it in a constructive way in the public space - involving policy makers, media, lawyers, and of course, developers, who need to start thinking about the social consequences of their work and make it part of their daily jobs. Perhaps there need to be certain legal frameworks, and sociologists and emergency services need to be involved in the discussion before games like Pokemon Go get released. It's too big of an issue to run it as a worldwide an experiment.
Dr Anastasia Dedyukhina is a keynote speaker, author of Homo Distractus, professional coach and a pioneer of the Consciously Digital™ concept.