By: Laura Brown, Natalia Dmuchowska, Brodie Johnson, Teresa Liu, Corinna Prior, Matthew Zentner
Pokémon Go was a phenomenon that swept the world this past summer. Cities around the globe experienced an influx of citizens into their public spaces as everyone tried to ‘catch-em-all.’ Crazed Pokémon trainers wandered the city swiping their phones and battling to win gyms, ultimately searching for the coveted Pikachu. The significance of these movements within the urban environment has been covered here.
The game is based on augmented reality (AR) technology that overlays a game world on top of a live map of the city, creating new ways for players to interact with the spaces around them. While other applications like Google Maps and Foursquare use similar technology, it was Pokémon GO that became the first game to achieve widespread success.
Over the last three months, a group of graduate researchers from the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Ryerson University also caught the PokéFever and sought to explore more serious aspects of the game. Working with clients from the City of Toronto Manager’s Office and Public Consultation Unit, their research investigates the challenges that municipalities face in working with new and emerging technologies and how urban planners might be able to use similar technology to consult and engage with the public. The potential of AR technology such as Pokémon GO to alter the behaviour of people in real space presents both opportunities to attract people to certain locations and animate space, as well as concerns regarding public safety and security, and inequities arising from disparities in access.
Pokémon GO Findings
Conducting an exploratory analysis into the relationship between game data and demographic data, the team first investigated the distribution of PokéStops and PokéGyms throughout Toronto. In the game, PokéStops are locations where players receive items necessary for gameplay, and players may join one of three teams and “battle” for possession of PokéGyms. For their research, however, the team was interested in these landmarks as fixed locations that draw players to visit them in the real world. In addition, the locations of these markers were selected based on the Google database as well as player suggestions from a previous AR game by the same developer called Ingress. According to the developer, the markers that were frequented most by Ingress players became Gyms in Pokémon GO, and the others became PokéStops.
While 90% of people within the city lived within a five-minute walk of game elements, access varies significantly in terms of density, disproportionately making the game play experience much richer in the downtown core. Whereas overcrowding in open spaces and parks became the focus of media attention, there was actually a much higher concentration of game elements along major corridors like Queen Street. Narrowing our boundaries to just the downtown core, however, did reveal higher concentrations of gyms and stops in open spaces. These results were surprising and suggest the different forms that the public realm takes across the city.
As we moved through our analysis, something meaningful emerged. We started to think about Stops and Gyms as indicators of concentrated play spaces. The map below depicts what happens when you remove the road lines – clusters of dots begin to reflect desire paths into areas of the public realm that were appropriated for game play. Rather than simply revealing the distribution of the game throughout the urban fabric, the placement of the Stops and Gyms hint at the fine-grained spaces that interconnect more formal “Open Spaces” across the city. This may contribute to a more nuanced view of the public realm, in addition to the more obvious areas defined by parks and open spaces.
Because many of the Stop and Gym locations were user generated and determined on the basis of usage (based on Niantic’s previous AR game Ingress), they may serve as indicators of where players might want to linger and occupy the public realm, as well as landmarks that hold cultural significance. While we recognize that this data only reflects a segment of the public, we think it might be possible for city planners to use this data in their analyses of streetscapes and cultural heritage, to better visualize existing public assets. Further it provides insight into how citizens use spaces in the city.
Augmented Reality and Planning
Current public consultation and engagement practices with citizens and stakeholders are predicated on in-person interaction, although they are increasingly occurring through online and other platforms. AR technology can draw people to new spaces and change the way they move around the city. Harnessing AR could bring new opportunities for reaching different demographics in the places where they live, work, and play.
We looked at the potential of using augmented reality technology to enhance development proposal signs through geo-location and visualization. Imagine walking down a street and receiving a notification on your smartphone for a nearby development proposal. By clicking it on it, the user is guided to the location where they are shown a visualization of the project conveniently through their phone. This would provide more meaningful information about the size and scale of the project, allowing people to see the full extent of the proposal in human scale and in context, while reviewing specific details right then and there.
Finally, augmented reality can be used as a platform for public education and collaboration between community groups to enhance heritage planning and the public realm. This could potentially transform the whole city into a new type of living museum without borders, inspiring people to feel greater ownership over the city and its heritage.
Evaluating Technology for Planning
It is also necessary to understand how emerging technologies are created, implemented, and used. We have created an evaluative framework that explores the different areas planners must be aware of when evaluating new technology, an overview of which is shown in the figure below. These include the technical aspects and requirements (such as the platform of the technology), opportunities for greater engagement (ways to break down barriers like language and visual or auditory impairment), and potential inequalities and liabilities (such as data security concerns and differing abilities to access technology). Most importantly, this assessment allows planners to determine the usefulness of a technology in their daily planning practice.
The continually changing world of technology creates new opportunities that have the potential to enhance the way people interact with their city and the processes that govern it. We feel that planners are well placed to harness these emerging technologies to augment their cities in real life.
Although the Pokémon craze has since died down, it provided us with a unique opportunity to discover the potential of emerging technologies. We look forward to seeing what the future has in store for cities and for urban planners.
The full evaluative framework and results from the Pokémon GO analysis will be posted to the Geothink website shortly.
For more information please feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Team PokéPlan is comprised of Laura Brown, Natalia Dmuchowska, Brodie Johnson, Teresa Liu, Corinna Prior and Matthew Zentner.
Thank you to our supervisor and Geothink co-applicant Dr. Pamela Robinson (Ryerson University, School of Urban and Regional Planning) and our clients at the City of Toronto!