SCIENCE: How Pokemon GO uses augmented reality to create immersive user experience


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Photo by Matt Cerisano |

Photo Illustration | Pokemon GO, an augmented reality game developed by Niantic, uses various other common technologies to create an immersive user experience for players.


Pokemon GO, an augmented reality game, is technologically unique compared to previous Pokemon games. 

Pokemon GO is undoubtedly one the most popular games of the summer, generating more than $500 million in the 60 days since its launch on July 6. 

But what makes Pokemon GO, developed by Niantic, different from previous Pokemon games? It's a classic example of augmented reality (AR), said Grigore Burdea, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

“The (phone) essentially becomes a window to this augmented reality. It’s as if you are seeing through the phone to the other side, except the other side is your surroundings in which the game has overlapped these synthetic characters,” Burdea said. “And these characters are intelligent and respond to your actions.”

The game also uses a global positioning system to track the location of the player. It uses Google Maps to provide a grid-like navigation system in the actual game.

When it comes to placement of Pokemon, the system is not completely random. Distinctive types of Pokemon are more commonly found in areas that match up to their "elemental type,"  John Hanke, CEO of Niantic, said in an interview at the 2016 San Diego Comic-Con.

Niantic uses massive amounts of data to determine where to place Pokémon, he said. They use the phone's clock and GPS to place Pokémon in certain regions at specific times.

“We try to populate Pokémon around the world just as if they were real species,” he said. 

Although Pokémon GO is one of the more popular mobile games, which incorporates augmented reality, it is certainly not the first of its kind. 

In fact, Niantic previously developed another AR based multiplayer game called Ingress, which uses similar technology,  Mashable previously reported. Users of Ingress submitted data and locations that were used to determine where Pokéstops and gyms appear in Pokémon Go.

“The whole infrastructure that (Pokémon GO) runs on is the second-level technology stack that was built from Ingress,” Hanke said  in an interview with Forbes.

The game encourages people get off the couch, walk around and explore, Neha Ashraf, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, said.

This use of technology is allowing people to stay active but also warns about social implications that come with augmented reality. He also said that a person will never escape the element of "real" reality, so they can still "co-exist" with people not playing Pokémon Go. 

“You have to be respectful of other things happening around you and not run in front of a bus because you’re so immersed into this medium that you completely forget about 'real' reality,” he said. “It’s a very addictive game and its easy to loose yourself."

A week after the game launched, a  man playing Pokemon GO crashed into a cop car in Baltimore. Following the accident, the police department sent out a tweet reminding users that "Pokemon GO is not all fun and games."

The element of self-restraint has to exist or else there will be problems, Burdea said. The game itself will also inevitably improve, if nothing else but because the technology it is running on will improve.

The accuracy and the responsiveness of the trackers and the overall technology that gets used at the base of this game is getting better, therefore there are more things that people can do, he said.

“One of the elements in modern cell phones is that they have more and more graphics processors. So you have more power, you can do more complex things, you can refresh them faster, things like that,” he said.

Another important element that may improve is the way players interact with the game, he said.

“Right now, it's rather primitive the way we interact with the Pokémon GO world. With more sophisticated future versions, it may be as easy as doing a gesture, and the camera will look at your gesture, detect it, determine it and then alter the scene accordingly,” he said.

Niantic will be releasing a wearable wrist device that blinks and vibrates to alert users when Pokestops and Pokémon are nearby.


Madhuri Bhupathiraju is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in cell biology and neuroscience. She is a staff writer for The Daily Targum. Follow her on Twitter @madhuri448 for more.


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