Pokémon Go and augmented reality: Not all fun and games

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By Michael A. Henk | 15 July 2016

With surprisingly little marketing, a new mobile game has taken the United States by storm—and it may generate extreme levels of distractedness while posing a new front for cyber risk.

Pokémon Go was officially released in the United States on July 6. By July 11, it had been downloaded an estimated 7.5 million times in the U.S., bringing Nintendo (which owns a share of the Pokémon company) an increase in market value of $7.5 billion in just two days.

How is this different than any other game? Why is it catching on so intensely? And is it safe?

The popularity of “Go” comes from a combination of seemingly new ideas and nostalgia. Pokémon started as a popular role-playing video game from the mid 1990’s and has since grown into the second most successful and lucrative video game-based media franchise in the world. Each new release comes with a great deal of fanfare, but nothing quite like “Go.” The appeal of “Go” is technologically driven. It’s a free-to-play, GPS-based augmented reality (AR) game for mobile devices. It allows players to capture and train virtual Pokémon who appear throughout the real world. The key concept to understand is “augmented reality” mode, in which the app uses a phone’s camera and gyroscope to make a Pokémon appear in the “real world” (on screen, of course). And, of course, you can take pictures.

Augmented reality means augmented opportunities and augmented risks

Photo credit: www.flickr.com / Topher McCulloch

Augmented reality is similar to the more commonly understood concept of virtual reality. As the technology improves, AR is becoming increasingly utilized in gaming (as with “Go”), entertainment, and even education. Companies, including some in the insurance industry, are realizing the potential education applications. Zurich Insurance, a large international general insurance company, is using AR smartphone apps to train its managers on project management and people management skills.

AR could also potentially benefit insurance policyholders. A prototype (again at Zurich) will allow drivers to point their smartphones at a card on their dashboard to receive immediate help if involved in an accident. This app will assist in finding help, from a garage to a lawyer, and will walk the policyholder through recording details of other involved parties. This will help get claims into the systems more quickly, which may ultimately decrease claims adjustment expenses.

Insurance company marketing departments may also benefit from the emerging AR technology. Since AR essentially generates sound, video, or graphics over a real world environment, it can bring print brochures to life, launching different interactive programs when certain sections are scanned, and can be used to make people aware of all of the potential risks. Allianz, for example, has an AR “Haunted House” concept, where people enter a mockup of a home with a tablet and walk around, “seeing” the various dangers on the tablet screen.

Augmented reality is nothing new, but with the rise of mobile device usage and the implementation in such a nostalgic and far reaching media franchise, “Go” is many peoples’ first foray into the AR “world,” and because of this, many people are unaware of the dangers.

“Go” get distracted

Firstly, AR products like “Go” provides yet another “distraction.” We’re all aware of the dangers of being “distracted.” Texting while driving is illegal in a number of cities and states throughout the country. However, drivers aren’t the only ones being distracted. Distracted walking is a growing problem, one that has arisen naturally with the increasing dependence on mobile electronic devices and one that “Go” is already contributing to. There are anecdotes all over social media about players so engrossed in catching virtual monsters that they’re running into walls and walking in traffic. New York City has issued “Go” safety tips.

According to a federal study, distracted driving crashes cost the United States as much as $175 billion a year. Most people associate this with texting while driving, but there are so many other potential distractions, and AR games such as “Go” simply add to the list. The Kansas Highway Patrol tweeted pictures of people who appeared to be playing the game while driving. “Go” is different because it requires travel and utilizes the GPS. On one hand, it encourages players to move around their world rather than sitting in place as typical video games do. On the other hand, it encourages players to move around their world while having their faces glued to their phone screen.

Pedestrian injuries due to cell phone rose 35% from 2010 to 2014, and are a major concern for cities, especially as many increasingly promote walkable cities. Some jurisdictions have experimented with fines for distracted walking, and others still are attempting to push this type of legislation through. Distracted walking isn’t just a public concern, according to the National Safety Council, which because of the frequency of distracted walking injuries now publishes statistics on distracted walking, and 52% of cell phone-related distracted walking injuries happen at home.

“Go” may lead to an increase in distraction-caused injuries and pedestrian-vehicle injuries, which is currently the fifth-leading cause of death for children ages 5 to 19. It’s not inconceivable to imagine an incident in which both the driver and the pedestrian are distracted, maybe by the same “rare” Pokémon.

Augmented reality in the time of unicorns and trolls

Speaking of “rare” Pokémon, because the different monsters in the program aren’t uniformly spread throughout the land, there’s some built-in incentive to do nefarious things in an effort to increase your standing by capturing a rarity. In Mariondale, North Carolina, a teenager was shot and killed while attempting to break into a home to capture one of these “rare” Pokémon that appeared on the “nearby” list.

In addition to this fatality, in O’Fallon, Missouri, four suspects have been arrested for armed robbery after luring victims to their location using the “lure” system within the “Go” program that’s received praise for bringing people together to share in the nostalgia. As with any new technology or hot industry trend, there will be parties attempting to use it for personal gain or to take advantage of people who aren’t exactly “focused.” Aside from “IRL” (in real life) dangers, there’s a data security concern with some early installs. Some iOS installs of the software require the user to provide the app with full access to their google accounts, which allows access to their Gmail (theoretically being able to send e-mail from your account), files stored on Google Drive and Google Photos, among other content. The developer has responded and said this was done erroneously, and that permissions will be corrected soon, but it’s important to make sure that users know exactly what programs on their devices have access to. There are other concerns about downloading the program from non-official app stores as well, but that stands for all programs and is definitely not a “Go”-specific concern.

Minor injuries from Pokémon Go are already piling up, and it’s only a matter of time until there’s a serious AR-related injury or something worse, and it’s hard to imagine the developer not being targeted by a lawsuit despite any agreed upon “terms of service.”

Another potential concern to AR is reputation risk. Reputational risk is a hidden danger that can pose a threat to the survival of the biggest and best-run companies. Within the “Go” world, Pokémon are everywhere. While there are some places where it’s downright dangerous to be searching (the middle of the road, for example), there are others that are merely tasteless. Some of the most well-known memorial sites around the world have had to tell players to not play on their premises, from the 9/11 Memorial Pool in New York City, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Officials at Auschwitz have reportedly asked the game's producers to exclude the site from this and future versions. An application that prompts users to play at these inappropriate sites could be deemed tasteless and could come back to haunt the developers.

There are other potential legal risks with AR that are new and never thought of before. As with the fatal shooting in the breaking and entering mentioned earlier, there’s a significant risk for trespass with AR games that utilize real-world locations. It remains to be seen whether an AR developer placing cyber-content on your property constitutes trespassing or if AR users are “engaged on a cyber plane on which you have no exclusive property claim.” There’s another legal concern with “attractive nuisance,” which states that property owners are responsible for eliminating dangerous conditions on their property which may attract children. “An individual who fails to rectify an attractive nuisance on their property is civilly-liable to injury a child sustains on it, even if the child was trespassing.” Sounds like something that may happen in the pursuit of a rare Pokémon.

Health risks?

There are also potential health concerns that stem from AR use, and as with most emerging technologies, these risks are not well understood at this time. For example, the limited field of view of AR products creates gaps in the environment. While this is not a concern with “Go,” which is merely placing 3-D objects within the field of view of the user, other AR applications exist which plunge the user deep underwater or into space. As the field of vision is limited by the size of the screens, users can view the real world just by moving their heads or eyes. This potentially leads to health concerns such as eye strain, headaches, or nausea.

As with any emerging technology, the long-term risks to users are not well understood and may not be for a long time. Users and manufacturers of new technologies and products need to be aware that there is potential risk here, something that may not be uncovered for a significant period of time. For example, bisphenol A has been used to make plastics and resins since the 1960s, and only recently has the concern of potential health effects from its use been revealed. The first serious anti-smoking campaigns and medical evidence weren’t published until the 1960s after centuries of smoking causing health problems. There’s no evidence to state that AR technology will lead to serious health concerns after prolonged use, but there’s also no published evidence to the contrary.

Aside from risks to the users of AR technology such as “Go,” there are also risks to the producers of the applications. In the game’s terms of service, Niantic Labs states that you should “be aware of your surroundings and play safely. You agree that your use of the App and play of the game is at your own risk, and it is your responsibility to maintain such health, liability, hazard, personal injury, medical, life, and other insurance policies as you deem reasonably necessary for any injuries that you may incur while using the Services.” Terms of service suggesting a review of your insurance policies is a new one to me, but with the increase in AR-based games, something we’ll likely keep seeing.

Any application with “in-app” purchases could also generate some reputational risk. Even though users must agree to allow these purchases, it’s well known that most people don’t read what permissions applications are asking for, which has led to some extremely large bills for some users whose children are unknowingly spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on these purchases. While there’s no true “liability” here, anything that leaves a bad taste in someone’s mouth pertaining to a major international company could lead to reduction in market value if it becomes common enough.

There’s also potential for generating public outcry. “Go” has already created controversy at the Holocaust Museum and at Arlington National Cemetery, and it’s easy to imagine how “Go” could be used by malicious people online who want to “troll” certain organizations.

There are plenty of positive things about Pokémon Go. “Fans of the app say it's everything they've ever wanted, everything they dreamed about as children, everything worthy of leaving the house for and everything good in the world. To them, it is literally everything.” With wonder, come risks.