May 03, 2019

How augmented reality encourages our engagement with public spaces

Public Space and Land Art

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Augmented reality moved at a languid pace in the world of technology until the massive stage arrival of Pokémon Go in the summer of 2016.


Pokémon GO's launch mirrored the cultural phenomenon it had cultivated in the late ‘90s. The high level of engagement that the app had around the world was staggering with an estimated 164 million averages users, and eventually growing to an estimated 379 million users around the world. The game required people to physically travel to different locations around their community and city to find and catch animated Pokémon in real time and in real places. Its release began of a mass phenomenon and a stampede of people to local landmarks and parks to “catch em all”.

Despite this, national park and local park agencies grew concerned over the high volume of individuals, not only arriving at the park but lingering there for many hours. Surrounding businesses and park amenities weren't equipped to handle the significant spike in foot traffic. Moreover, there was (and still somewhat today) a stigma attached to the game because of its content, and the inability to recognize the connection between the game and the environment. Instead, what they saw (and see) is a mass crowd of individuals who stare at their phones endlessly.

However, that’s an incorrect and simplified reaction to augmented reality’s impact on public space engagement and interest. Pokémon Go has had a positive impact not only on local businesses and parks but on the health of many of its players. Its new integration with Apple Health and Google Fit has promoted physical activity with its in-game rewards (for hitting individual walking targets). The engagement happens through the use of points of interest within the game that reward players for interacting with real-world locations. With parks generally having more potential interaction points, augmented reality games that interact with these real-world locations have thus created a spike in activity for many local parks, at all times of the year. This is particularly important, as my colleagues have highlighted, because people are happier and healthier when they spend time outdoors. By increasing people’s time spent outside and increasing community engagement towards landmarks, public spaces and public art, we are encouraging a healthier relationship with the naturalized environment.

With the growing popularity of augmented reality, it has become more apparent that a true partnership exists between the environment, naturalized public spaces and a variety of different public artworks. These points of interest that have been established within Pokémon Go are anticipated to be used in future games produced by Niantic Labs. As interest starts to grow amongst different augmented reality companies, we can expect an increase in the positive impacts of blending augmented reality technology with nature. Visiting the open countryside or a local park can feel great when you're finding urban environments claustrophobic. But our busy modern lives can make the idea of aimlessly wandering around seem like a waste of time. These types of apps and games are filling the gap and creating a purpose amongst players to explore new regions, spend more time outdoors and travel to new places.

We have also seen an increase in a variety of businesses incorporating augmented reality apps into their work to create points of interest within different public plazas and other public spaces. For example, a municipality engaged Nadi to explore design options for a Manitoba walk of fame, celebrating many of its laudable citizens. As Emeka Nnadi, principal and founder, explained:

“Our challenge proved to be how we could use urban space (and technology) to tell a riveting and interactive story about exemplary members of the community, (some living, some not). As well, how we could design a walk of fame experience that forms closer bonds and deeper engagement with people who experience the place, increasing civic pride, and our sense of ‘happiness’ and ‘harmony’ within the surrounding community.” While society makes a progressive movement towards a technology-fueled way of life, it is vital that community engagement comes from a variety of different platforms including mobile games. While Pokémon Go has become a global phenomenon, they have created a renewed interest in public spaces, parks and art. As this interest and investment to augmented reality games continues to grow and develop, we should encourage its connection between the many facets of life, including the environment, and not ignore its success. 


Through the creation of in-game events that are held monthly that encourage people to head out to parks or the upcoming Earth Day clean up that is being organized for a second year in a row by Niantic Labs. Last year's event had a combined effort of four thousand people who cleaned up six thousand kilograms of waste. Events like this create an engagement level that can further community growth and foster a positive relationship with how people interact with the world and environment around them.