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Pokémon Go points the way towards a universal UI for smart cities

Pokémon Go, the augmented reality smartphone game that sets players collecting virtual animals from real locations around the city, may seem like an ephemeral craze, as cyclical as the trading card game on which it is based … but it might just be the beginning of an AR platform for smart cities, used to drive citizen engagement and participation in smart city initiatives.

It is commonplace to introduce coverage of already popular phenomenon with the phrase “for those who have spent the last week/month on a desert island.” For once, this is more or less justified. Pokémon Go is not primarily something covered in the technology press and the geek blogosphere. It is a palpable, physical presence in public spaces, real and visible. Last night I witnessed a fight narrowly avoided on the top deck of a London bus, as one young man took exception to another pointing his smartphone camera at him — but was pacified once it was explained that there was an imaginary virtual animal floating in front of his face. Today there is a warning sign at the railway station near to the office. As widespread media coverage shows, Pokémon Go has driven some irresponsible and antisocial behavior, including a group of young people who stole a boat at a marine lake to search for Pokémons on an isolated island, and a group of drivers who parked on a motorway so as to catch a rare creature.

Pokémon Go has a history, of course. It is a direct descendant of Ingress, also created by Niantic Labs, which uses a similar AR engine to provide a game about alien invasion from another dimension. Zombies Run attempted to do something similar with Google Maps, enabling players to avoid virtual zombies by moving about in the real world. Roam, and Chromaroma before it, promised to gamify public transport using the APIs provided by Transport for London’s Oyster Card system, and thereby to “re-enchant” public spaces and transport. For those with really long memories, there was once an SMS-based game in Helsinki which allowed subscribers to encounter a virtual lost cat, and to stroke, feed and play with it via texts.

It’s not hard to imagine the same impulses and passion that are pushing users against the constraints of the city and its property rights being used to drive responsible and social behavior. The game has already been celebrated as different from others in that it gets players out of their seats and into the outside world, and it also claims to promote social interaction through team versions.  Of course some businesses are already using it to drive footfall through in-game purchases of “lure modules.” Cities could follow suit in adopting either Pokémon Go, or perhaps a successor AR-based game.

AR could be used for crowd control — at the moment there are real people directing pedestrian traffic at busy railway stations, but virtual people or cute animals could do the job almost as well if the AR platform was widely accepted. Cute animals might help to promote social solidarity as an extension to something like the Trygve app, perhaps by providing an easy to read visual display derived from reputation scoring that could be used to indicate who was “safe” — for lost children, for women walking home at night, for ride-sharers. Or cute animals might gather around buildings with good energy performance, providing an instant, visible marker of corporate social responsibility.

Engagement and participation are among the key challenges for citizen-facing smart city projects. Much of the apparatus of sustainability-oriented applications is aimed at promoting behavior change. For example, travel apps incorporate real-time information from public transport vehicles and networks so as to promote modal shifts, principally encouraging users to get out of their cars and walk, cycle or use public transport; home energy programs aim to provide users with feedback on their energy usage so as to encourage them to use less.

The reality is that behavior change is hard to achieve and harder to sustain. Home energy projects deliver modest gains which erode over time. Smarter travel programs assume travelers are paragons of rational choice who seek information to optimize their journeys, when the reality is that they are mostly satisficers who find a mode for regular journeys that is “good enough” and then stick to it. Most programs begin with a labor-intensive high-touch pilot which is impossible to scale or maintain. Such apps as exist have interfaces to which users soon habituate. A key metric for home energy monitoring devices is “mean time to kitchen drawer.”

AR is not, strictly speaking, part of the internet of things, but it might provide part of the intersection between the IoT and the internet of humans. Games have already shown their potential to educate users in new interfaces and modalities; a generation that might never have engaged with the dreary conferencing facilities of the mainstream VoIP providers eagerly embraced TeamSpeak as a way to coordinate online play in World of Warcraft and Call of Duty. AR has the potential to be much more compelling than previous “gamification” schema such as leader boards and virtual points and stars. And it’s much, much more engaging than the hardened touchscreen public kiosks and dull city apps that municipalities have tended to deploy to expose their data and applications to citizens.

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