It’s been virtually impossible to miss this week’s top story — the meteoric, runaway success of Pokemon Go. Released less than a week ago in the United States, the game is already approaching (and preparing to pass) Twitter for numbers of daily users (going on 300 million), even though it hasn’t launched globally and is only currently available in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. The craze is impossible to miss; if you’re not reading any of the myriad articles online about it, you’ve seen the parade of people — not just kids! — in virtually every public place with their faces buried in their smartphones, paying more attention to whether their is a Pokemon near them than where they actually are. By any measure, the game is a runaway success.
But there’s a darker side to the game’s viral adoption. As many outlets from The Guardian to The Huffington Post to industry experts like RedOwl’s Adam Reeve are now reporting, Pokemon Go is riddled with security concerns. The standard line now resonating from security experts and industry observers is that by playing Pokemon Go, you have handed the developer, Niantic, the keys to your Gmail account and your life on Google, from your search history to your location data. (Note: Niantic has issued several statements and taken action to address the most disturbing of the concerns.)
Up next: I predict a backlash to the backlash, with pundits accusing the naysayers of overblowing the concerns, engaging in hyperbole or scare tactics, and generally accusing them of being cranky old people with no sense of fun in their lives.
But when all the hype is stripped away and we take a reasoned look at the Pokemon Go phenomenon, what’s really happening?
1. Augmented reality just hit the mainstream. As the New York Times has pointed out, Pokemon Go is more than just a game; this week represents the moment in which a technology — augmented reality — just evolved from being a toy and interest of only technophiles, early adopters and those in touch with their inner geek, and hit the mainstream in a very big way. In that sense, Pokemon Go may ultimately prove as significant as Pac-Man or the Netscape browser in terms of bringing an emerging technology permanently into the consciousness and experience of “everyday people.”
2. The mainstream (or at least the mainstream media) is waking up to the fact that no one pays attention to privacy policies. Forget the occasional stupid meme floating around that Mark Zuckerberg now owns not only everything you’ve ever posted on Facebook, but controls your webcam, has the copyright on everything written on your hard drive, and has naming rights to your children — but how you can prevent all this by pasting this status update. The otherwise inexplicable resurrection of those memes every so often may well have clued us in to a lesson that has been driven home in spades this week by the Pokemon Go: Very, very few people actually read the privacy policies for the online apps or platforms they participate in.
And even if we take Niantic at its word and trust the marketing, advertising, and sales industries not to use this information in ways that violate people’s trust (like, say, we have with the telemarketing industry and the ways to get around the Do Not Call list), there is always the disturbing possibility of a hack. (I have to think that the unscrupulous among the hacker community have to be licking their chops at the idea of going after Niantic servers and data right now, as the Daily Beast has pointed out.)
This isn’t new; security and privacy experts have routinely sounded alarms about online privacy and apps. But the meteoric rise of Pokemon Go thrusts the issue into the mainstream spotlight in ways that nothing before it really ever has. (While illegal breaches have garnered lots of media attention, there’s nothing illegal about what Niantic is collecting… this is probably the biggest ‘what you voluntarily share’ story we’ve seen.)
What Happens Next?
So what’s going to come of all this? What does the future hold?
It’s only one guy’s educated guess, but I have a hard time seeing something that got this hot this fast staying this hot. Pokemon Go itself will always have dedicated players and fans, but I think there are a lot of casual fans playing because it’s currently the hot new thing — and much like Draw Something or Angry Birds, the bloom will come off the rose for many of these casual players as soon as the next hot game comes along. I’m not proclaiming Pokemon Go dead by any measure, but I do think the adoption curve will look more like a bell than an S. My advice to Niantic is to enjoy it and monetize it while they can, but keep working on the next app; much like the Macarena or the Whip and Nae Nae, there’s probably an expiration date on Pokemon Go’s ubiquity and wild popularity. It won’t go away completely, but it isn’t going to be this big forever.
But augmented reality has crossed a Rubicon, in my opinion. Now that something featuring A.R. has reached the consciousness of so many people, you can count on two things. First, take it to the bank that a whole bunch of developers will try to copycat or piggyback on Pokemon Go’s success and will come up with a next generation of A.R. games to tempt the players who burn out on Pokemon Go or are scared off by privacy concerns. Pokemon Go is just the first mass adoption A.R. game; there will be lots of others.
Second, the appetite for A.R. has now been whetted. Gaming, driven by casual gamers now aware of the possibilities, will be first to demand more and better A.R. options. But now that the average Joe or Jane “get it,” I can see A.R. being increasingly adapted for retail use (imagine “capturing” a coupon or deal for Starbucks or Banana Republic, or even an automaker offering swag or points toward free or discounted accessories via an A.R. application). I also see applications in tourism — if you’ve ever had your kid play the Phineas & Ferb World Showcase Adventure at Epcot, you know how fun and enticing a ‘scavenger hunt’ type application can be; I could also see art museums and galleries or history museums hiding easter eggs within their walls, or national parks or monuments using A.R. to share ‘secret’ tidbits with visitors. In this sense, I think Pokemon Go will prove historically significant even after downloads have dropped off and user numbers have flattened.
Expect a rise in articles and anecdotes about how people have become so wrapped up in A.R. games that they tune out the world around them — walking into light poles, other people, or even into oncoming traffic, not to mention playing while they drive. And just like distracted driving/hands-free calling and the campaign to get people to stop texting while they drive, I would expect we’ll see public service and safety campaigns about the dangers of playing A.R. too intently; I can see something like “Play Out There But Stay Aware” being Gen Z’s crying Native American or “this is your brain on drugs… any questions?”
As location and GPS become a bigger part of A.R. and digital and mobile gaming, I would anticipate that at some point Congress will get involved, holding hearings about possible misuses or breaches of data collected by A.R. apps and possibly legislating about how location-based personally-identifiable information can be collected or used. They’ll present it as an issue of safety and protecting minors in particular. Some citizens and media will agree and position the industry (and the marketers and advertisers hoping to leverage the collected data) as predatory or unscrupulous. Others will be alarmed at what they see as government interference in private enterprise, and will warn of a chill effect on technological development. It ought to be an interesting debate, that’s for sure.
Finally — I can only hope! — the rise of Pokemon Go and the rapid backlash and raising of concerns about the data it collects will increase both public awareness about the data we share, and developers’ sensitivities to that awareness and possible concerns. If a few more parents are having discussions this week with their kids about exercising caution about the private information they’re sharing in order to be part of a game or app, or if a few more developers are thinking about security and privacy of users as they develop their apps and games, then Pokemon Go is invariably a good thing.
That’s one guy’s take. What are your thoughts about Pokemon Go and A.R. in general?