Time to dust off this blog for another annual entry…
A major media event, and a major breakthrough for much of what I have been doing professionally for what seems like forever. Pokémon Go! was released last week in Australia and the USA and social media, the technology press and much of the smartphone-owning western world seems to have gone mad with Pokemon mania. I have to admit I’m too old to have been part of the Pokémon generation (give me Garbage Pail Kids any day) but even the old, wizened cynic in me had to give this a try. The reason for doing this though was less being a old-enough-to-know-better wannabe hipster, and more to do with what looks like a certain validation through augmented reality (AR) for some of the ideas that I’ve been throwing out into a void for what seems like all my life.
My academic research has concentrated upon location-based social networking (like Foursquare) and how the use of this social media can lead to new understandings of place. Simple. Or not so much. In my book released last year and papers published in 2011 and 2015, I used a Heideggerian paradigm to understand our comportment towards place through using these services and smartphones generally. I linked this very closely to the Heideggerian concepts of care and withdrawal, and to the notion of embodiment. In my more recent work with Mike Saker, we’ve looked at a range of issues with LBSN use, including using the concept of the playeur (as an update of the ‘flaneur’) to understand how game-based locative media allows users to explore and engage with spaces in the creation of place. When using Pokémon Go! last night and this morning, our arguments in this paper and theoretical arguments from Heidegger in my book became very salient very quickly, and in fact the experience of using this app crystallized much of my work for me. I think I’ve learned something phenomenally important about my own work.
So, Pokémon Go is a game that uses your phone’s GPS and clock to detect where and when you are in the game and make Pokémon “appear” around you (on your phone screen) so you can go and catch them. When playing this morning, I was seeing these kinds of ‘things’:
Now, as I said, I’m no Pokémon expert. In fact, I know nothing about Pokémon beyond the image of Pikachu. However, while taking my usual stroll to the office through the Hastings old town, I was ‘confronted’ by all sorts of odd-looking creatures that I flicked my ‘Poké Ball’ towards in order to catch them. I have to admit the augmented reality-effect here of super-imposing the characters onto the street as I look at my iPhone screen is pretty neat, and is a definite hook for using this that other failed AR apps just didn’t have. These are of course not things at all (as indicated by my punctuation) but one could argue that they are performing the role of being in thing in a phenomenological, Heideggerian sense – see my book if you want to know more about this! It is fun too, but I suspect that might wear off quickly. Much more interesting for me was the way you are led by the app to interact with places around you. Part of the game is ‘stopping’ at Poké Stops, which are notable locations in the real world marked on the in-game map. You go to these to get items for the game, such as Poké Balls that you use to catch Pokémon. This seems much like the ‘check-in’ of LBSN apps such as Foursquare (or now the Swarm app) that I have written so much about over the last 6 years. However, even for a grizzled old-timer of LBSN such as me, something very neat happened when I visited these ‘places’.
At each of these stops, you are given an image and some information on that place as it is outside of its function in the game i.e. the real place. Until this morning, I was only really aware of the Seagate on my walk; I’d never noticed that the big church I pass every morning is a Catholic Church, or that the Duke of Wellington had a headquarters in the town. Pretty cool. Much better followed:
This rather nice statue of Admiral Nelson has adorned the building for a long time, yet I had never seen it until this morning. It comes up in the game, I crane my neck, and all of a sudden its there. Now, I’ve written about this phenomena before as it had been experienced by my research participants using LBSN, but I don’t think I was getting the same experience. I’d found the odd pub or interesting thing, but this had a certain awe associated with the discovery. The fact I’ve walked past this loads of times without seeing it, then been alerted to it in the game, then saw it – woah!!
On it went. I’d never noticed this commissioned graffiti before – I had seen it as I’ve walked past it twice a day for the last 6 months, but not noticed it until the game drew it to my attention.
These two nice pieces of street art – never seen them at all, despite again walking by them twice a day for 6 months. Being part of the game genuinely made me aware of the place around me much more than I had before. Many of the conclusions that I had drawn in my book, and that Mike and I linked to the concept of the playeur as someone who explores and understands places through play became concrete to me in a way that even my own research and writing had not made clear before!
I’m glad I felt that this experience validated all this work rather than trashed it, but it does raise questions about LBSN and how AR might take my own research forward. As a confession, I was looking to end my association with LBSN after the publication of a joint-authored book with Mike Saker this summer. Ironically, I was getting ideas together around projects on AR and Virtual Reality. Well, looks like I’m on a continuum loop rather than revolutionary road now. What Pokémon Go does is create what Horea Avram in defining AR terms a convergent space (which will remain inevitably imperfect) between material reality and virtual information. This is the critical advance from LBSN, which could not render the user-generated information on places into an interface or perspective that allowed for this convergence to effectively occur in real-time. LBSN users were always looking at LBSN screens – this instance of AR means that we have the (phenomenally) mixed reality so long promised. In my own experience, it is unquestionably different, more powerful and more enjoyable. I probably lack the motivation from in-game achievements to carry on with it, but the immersive effect could be something that keeps me coming back as it shows me things I didn’t know about places that I do know – a form of localism that Mike and I have written about for this forthcoming book. In an excellent short piece, Travis Holland outlines offers an opening to a view of ‘layering’ place that develops from Paddy Scannell and Shaun Moore’s concept of the ‘doubling’ of place from overlaying digital information with physical spaces. In very quick time I’ll be adding thoughts on playful engagement with place, Pokémon as ‘things’, care and withdrawal of the device in using AR and placehood and worldhood in AR as this app spreads and others follow in its wake.
All this work just got interesting again…