It’s estimated that Pokemon Go has already peaked in users but some estimates put daily users still around 20 million in the United States alone. At the time of writing this, less than a month has passed since Niantic Labs, Pokemon and Nintendo dropped a bomb on the world in the form of the smartphone app and game. Nintendo’s stock prices have skyrocketed along with news stories involving the app and its users with buzzwords like “augmented reality” – the combination of a virtual world with the physical. Pokemon trainers, the term for people searching for Pokemon to capture and evolve, are easily spotted walking with faces in their cell phones or gathered around physical locations important to the game. The app has already displayed its great potential in exposing millions of new users to public art throughout the country and a possibility for significant cultural mapping systems used by artists, museum and municipalities.
One of the main features of Pokemon Go is the pokestop, a physical landmark within the real world that trainers must visit to collect goodies needed to play, especially pokeballs, the contraption for capturing Pokemon. Gyms are usually even more prominent landmarks established to allow trainers to train amongst their teammates or battle other teams to build up experience points and become higher level trainers. If you are lost at this point, there’s little to worry about but understand that besides locating the Pokemon creatures scattered throughout the world, the pokestops and gyms are integral to the game and is usually where one will find users en masse. These locations are usually located at culturally significant locations; among them are parks, interesting architectural buildings, historical landmarks and public art.
So how were the locations of the Pokestops and gyms established? Although Niantic Labs, the company behind the actual development of Pokemon Go has been quiet on technical details for obvious reasons, there is a fascinating history with CEO John Hanke. Hanke joined the Google team in 2004, was behind the launch of Google Earth and the placement of Google Maps on the iPhone in 2005. His interest in maps and along with Google cofounder Sergei Brin helped pave the way for developing more apps that would encourage users to interact with their surroundings, including historical sites and museums. In 2012 Niantic developed a game called Ingress which is very similar to Pokemon Go and requested players to submit locations for portals, the pokestop predecessor. With such a strong database established over four years these locations, paired with Google Maps and other geospatial applications and programming set the foundation for Pokemon Go.
As of September 2016, pokestops and gyms can be deleted by request but no new locations are being added, much to the chagrin of new users who don’t live near a pokestop or gym. The app shows the locations on an interactive map and users must navigate actual roads, traffic, buildings and other obstacles to find the locations. This has lead to a significant number of users discovering sites around their neighborhoods and city that were overlooked or lost before and is where public art can benefit greatly. Unfortunately, Niantic’s closed request system means that artists, businesses and municipalities that could benefit from additional coverage or information are left with what was established without their knowledge. Much of the artwork has information missing, incomplete or incorrect, but as always, we’ll take what we can get.
Pokemon Go will obviously fade as time goes on but perhaps what can be taken from the experience is a way to engage people who do not seek out art and culturally significant sites. Whether this goes back to Google and Hanke’s original visions of simply getting people out to see these places, combining augmented reality into these visits or something still to be thought of, Pokemon Go is an exciting entrance into even more possibilities for the arts, even if hidden behind the legendary Moltres, Articuno and Zapdos for now.
By Jake Weigel