“Remember to be alert at all times. Stay aware of your surroundings.”
This cautionary message appears as a new and wildly popular game loads on your Android or iOS device. As museum folk we know we need to be alert at all times, too, and aware that our surroundings suddenly may begin to look a little different with the blockbuster release this week of Pokémon GO. The new augmented reality (AR) game uses your phone’s camera and GPS to blend the real world and the virtual. Players “catch” Pokémon characters (and earn points) in the game by throwing Poké Balls at them.
“What does this have to do with museum professionals?” you might (astutely) ask.
The latest technological tempest is happening now, and museum-type places are going to be at the eye of this particular storm. In the game, which made it to the number one slot on the download ‘charts’
within the first few hours of its release, the all-important Poké Balls are acquired by visiting (in real life, as in walking to and through) PokéStops. These are found at (wait for it) monuments, historical markers, public art installations, and other places of interest (sound a little like a place where you work?). There are even “Gyms” at some of these locations where players (once they’ve reached Level 5) can have virtual battles. I knew something was up when my son was meeting fifteen or so of his friends at our local farm museum to play for the first time, because it was a historic site with historic markers
Where did this come from? The game is from Niantic, which began as a startup within Google and is now independent. The company developed another AR game called Ingress. In that, the screen shows “points of energy” springing up around the user's surroundings. These appear at notable, real, locations - again at places like museums or monuments. In Pokémon GO, Niantic took these ideas and married them with Pokémon. Says John Hanke, CEO and founder of Niantic Labs, "You think you know them but you don't…. or maybe you walked by this place and never looked twice at it — whether it's a piece of artwork or a landmark you don't know the story behind." Wow. Isn't this what museums try to tell people? To stop and take notice? To learn the stories behind the monument or the art? Will staring at animated creatures on phones make this happen in 2016?
It is definitely too early to tell what the fallout of this will be for museums and historic sites, but rest assured there will be positives and negatives. Smart organizations will undoubtedly see opportunity – even profit – from this sudden new trend in AR.
We at VAM want to hear from our member museums (we have so many questions we don’t even know where to begin):
1. Are you witnessing this game being played at your site?
2. With the advent of Pokémon GO, are you seeing new trends or changes in visitation?
3. How can your site engage with players of this game?
4. What new opportunities do you see?
5. What challenges are presenting themselves as a result of this (because we’re sure there are some!)?
Share your thoughts in the comments section below, or via email to me at VAM. We can’t wait to hear from you!