2016 – A small town, in NSW Australia.
It’s a Sunday afternoon in the street behind my house and I’m on a mission. I’ve travelled this path many times before for arbitrary reasons: to get fit; to clear my head; to walk my dogs; to get to work. But today’s a first. Today I’m here to catch a Pokemon.
It’s been two weeks since Pokemon Go has captured popular attention. I wasn’t a Poke-fan growing up, and had absolutely no Poke-interest. I wasn’t even Poke-aware that the new augmented reality Pokemon Go app was a thing until a friend posted to Facebook:
Hey friends! So, those who know my offspring well, know that they’ve been DYING for this Pokemon Go game to come out. They have literally not shut up about it, bless! It’s finally come out and (my son’s) iPhone 4 is too old to run it. I don’t suppose anyone has something slightly newer that they’re done with, and wouldn’t mind passing on to a slightly devastated kid?? 😆 Thanks!!
It had begun.
That weekend, I was in Canberra, and saw some people waving their phones around while staring intently at their screens. My coffee date said, “I think this is the first time I’ve seen anyone actually playing Pokemon Go!” It had been out since Thursday and this was a Saturday afternoon.
Early in the next week, the memes started to pop up all over Social Media, which is my career and therefore something I find to be inescapable.
People I respect and look up to were tweeting about it.
This tweet became a thing:
I officially caught FOMO. I went to the app store and hit download.
The Past, Japan
Once upon a time, according to a mixture of online sources, there was a Japanese kid named Satoshi Tajiri. He was super into catching insects and wanted to become an entomologist. Other kids called him Dr Bug, but as he grew older and his rural Japanese environment became increasingly urbanised, insect catching locations became few.
As a teen, Tajiri penned a gaming zine. He attracted contributors who found they all shared similar frustrations about a lack of good video games available. The zine was called Game Freak and in 1989 it became a video game company which started to create and release games.
Tajiri had this idea that he could replicate the joy he felt as a childhood bug collector into a video game.
“Kids play inside their homes now, and a lot had forgotten about catching insects. So had I,” he told Time Magazine. “When I was making games, something clicked and I decided to make a game with that concept. Everything I did as a kid is kind of rolled into one.”
Satoshi Tajiri and Game Freak had gained a reputation for creating quality video games, so when they pitched their newest idea to Nintendo, the gaming giant was into it. Nintendo was the home of Shigeru Miyamoto, the video game maker who created games like Donkey Kong and Mario. Tajiri had serious love heart eyes for Miyamoto who was his inspiration and greatest influence, and became his professional mentor.
The Gameboy game that Satoshi Tajiri created was released in Japan as Pocket Monsters. Internationally, it became known as Pokemon.
The Slightly More Recent Past, US
In 2001, at a start up called Keyhole Inc, a suite of apps was created and given a name: Earth Viewer. Earth Viewer allowed users to fly over Earth via computer screen. It was backed by the CIA and taken over by Google in 2004. In 2005, Earth Viewer morphed into Google Earth.
At Google, in 2010, the former Keyhole, Inc CEO John Hanke founded Niantic Labs. He’d been working on Google Earth, wondering how to use his powers for good and encourage people to get outside. He was quoted as saying,
“Everyone is spending all this time inside, by their computers. No one goes to the local parks. We wanted to do something that was aspirational: Let’s get people outside.”
Niantic Labs released an app called Field Trip which encouraged users to check out the world around them. The app, which is still operational, plots places of note on a map and provides full articles about each of them for further reading. You can use it in new locales or to rediscover your neighbourhood. It takes a pretty scholarly approach and probably finds a home with history buffs. A review in the app store says, “It’s great for the traveller who is interested in off the beaten track info.”
Next, Niantic released Ingress, which became a global force. Ingress is a worldwide game played via the cloud – you sign up, pick a team, and get sent on missions on behalf of your team to capture locations around you. “Ingress transforms the real world into the landscape for a global game of mystery, intrigue, and competition” says its description in the app store. Niantic released Ingress first as an Android app in 2012 and then for iPhone in 2014. In 2014, Google reported that 7 million people had downloaded the app.
Field Trip and Ingress were popular, and Ingress was the first app to really popularise a new tech development: augmented reality.
When you approach a location you’re supposed to ‘claim’ in Ingress, if you view it via the screen on your phone you’ll see holograms and graphics superimposed atop it. Your reality will be ‘augmented’. Fictional elements will be added to the natural world.
In 2015, Google rebranded as Alphabet, restructuring as an umbrella company for Google’s primary business of search, maps, and Gmail – and all the rest of the cool stuff it does, like its mystery Google X arm. Niantic didn’t make the cut in the transition from Google to Alphabet and announced its independence. Soon after, Niantic announced a business deal: for 20 million dollars and 10 million dollars worth of performance incentive, paid for by Google, Nintendo and the Pokemon Company, Niantic would create a Pokemon app.
The app had been foreshadowed a couple of years prior as part of a Google April Fool’s video, which CNET reported on by saying,
“The search giant’s latest addition to its Maps smartphone app includes 150 “catchable” Pokemon, part of a hoax we can only hope foreshadows augmented reality uses down the line.”
Pokemon Go launched on July 7, 2016, to such acclaim that uptake added an extra 14.5 billion dollars to the net worth of Nintendo in just the first week.
Back to the Future
I tell my friend Tim that I’ve downloaded the Pokemon Go app because as long as I’ve known him, he’s been a Pokemon fanboy and I think he’ll be into it. I’m wrong.
Tim: “It’s just not that interesting of a game haha! The next 3DS version comes out in October and that’s the one I’m really keen for!!”
Kelly: “…it captures my attention. Except that I know none of the backstory or folklore hahaha.”
Tim: “You don’t need to know much, it’s a world where 10 year olds put their education on hold and are sent off unaccompanied around the country and sometimes to other countries, all the while enslaving these weird creatures/animals and making them fight each other.”
Signing up, I don’t know what to expect. My friend Lachie tells me that when it’s time, I should choose the blue team.
First you sign up with a Google account, which means you need to remember your password. Signing up with Facebook or the other social networks is not an option which is refreshing – this is one of the few new modern experiences that will take place entirely outside of Facebook. It’s also an interesting power play in the tech wars.
You choose your player, give them a name and pick their outfit. Then your location is plotted on a cartoon map that mimics your actual environment. Then you catch you first Pokemon. it rocks up on your screen as a bouncing animal type creature, and you tap it, at which point the camera on your phone kicks in and your real life environment appears behind the Pokemon. This is the augmented reality part of the experience. You swipe a Pokeball, which is the recognisable red and white sphere, and if you aim and thrust it with enough precision it hits the Pokemon and suctions it inside. This saves it to your Pokedex, which is an index of Pokemon. The aim is to catch all 250 different Pokemon but you can catch the same Pokemon more than once. Each time you catch a Pokemon it levels you up and when you get to level 5, you can fight other Pokemon trainers at a gym. At some point, a professor appears. Other things might happen too.
I’ve been wandering around with my eyes on the screen and earbuds in my ears for most of the Front Bottoms Talon Of The Hawk album, in perfect disguise as someone just out for a casual walk. I’ve had the Pokemon Go app open the whole time, expecting lots of Pokemon to cross my path so I can easily catch them, but for a long time, none appear. I wonder if I’m doing it wrong. The app directs me to a local tyre repair place and points out something I’ve never noticed before: a Fred Flintstone car on top of the building. The video game music mashes up with the post-pop-punk genius of the Front Bottoms and eventually, it becomes too much for my phone and it dies. I make the rest of the way back to my house with a path that feels much less adventurous. I’ve added three new types of Pokemon to my Pokedex and have levelled up to 4. I feel like I’ve accomplished something.
In Civic on Friday night my friend tells me he’s up to level 11, and we stop in the cold on our way to the car so he can catch two Pokemon. My phone is dead or I would join in for sure. We have a mad chat about the popularity of the game; about how video game consoles like Playstations and Nintendos have lost so much of their user bases to smartphones, and that the phone is a natural new territory for companies to fight for.
The Future Future
We’ll probably look back on 2016 as the moment in time where we all played Pokemon Go. It’s been a fun fortnight: I’m not sure how many more times I’ll open the app, but for the moment I’ve sated my FOMO, levelled up my vitamin D, and learned a bunch about how it seems the people who really change the world are the ones who follow their hearts and just go for it. Satoshi Tajiri? Loved bugs, created Pokemon. John Hanke? Coder with a conscience, created apps that encouraged people outside. They followed the steps, the rustling of leaves, and trusted their instincts, because you know what they say about your hopes and dreams? You gotta catch ’em all.