The Pokémon Fad Shows the Unnerving Future of Augmenting Reality

4 minute read

On a recent summer evening, something strange happened in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. As usual, joggers zipped along the edge of Long Meadow and dog owners did their postprandial duty. But this time they were joined by a dozen people shuffling about haphazardly, zombie eyes fixed on their glowing phone screens. This ad hoc crowd was busy catching Pokémon, the virtual creatures at the heart of the latest, out-of-nowhere smartphone craze.

Pokémon Go, released July 6 for Apple iOS and Google Android devices, is the first game in the 20-year-old franchise specifically designed for mobile gadgets. Go, developed by San Francisco–based Niantic, employs a phone’s GPS to make Pokémon appear near players’ physical locations. Using the built-in camera, creatures pop up onscreen, integrated within the real world around them. Different types of Pokémon, which range from two-headed ostriches to plushy dragons, manifest at different times of day in public places—parks, museums, monuments—encouraging outdoor exploration. The game is free to download but charges for optional digital items that can speed up players’ progress.

Even in an era of viral fads and ­Internet-breaking stunts, Pokémon Go became a thing at record pace. It shot to the top of the app charts, the fastest mobile game ever to reach No. 1 in terms of revenue, according to tracking firm App Annie. Investors cheered by the game’s sudden popularity added $7.5 billion to Nintendo’s market value in two days. (The Japanese firm partly owns the series’ creator.) And according to Google Trends, “Pokémon” searches even surpassed those for porn, if only temporarily.

Pokémon Go represents something well beyond previous hits like Candy Crush Saga or Farmville. It is a milestone for so-called augmented reality (AR), the practice of overlaying digital images on the real world via smartphone screen or head-mounted display. Companies from Ikea to Lockheed Martin have been experimenting with the concept for years. In March, Microsoft released a developer version of HoloLens, a prototype AR headset that can provide instructions for fixing a busted bathroom sink as well as play Minecraft in 3-D on your coffee table. Florida-based startup Magic Leap, one of the most hyped ventures in tech these days, has raised over $1 billion in funding, based largely on demos of its own AR technology that looks like Pokémon Go on methamphetamine.

But Go successfully uses AR as a sweetener to a mix of nostalgia for Pokémon, which peaked in popularity during the late ’90s when many millennials were preteens, as well as elements of long-gone Internet-age fads from geocaching to flash mobs. While technologists have been trying to perfect how AR works, Pokémon has provided one early answer for why you’d want it to.

The basic goodness or badness of AR—like any technology that proposes tinkering with the material of our reality—will be long debated. In science fiction, at least, the results are decidedly mixed. Star Trek’s holodeck is a (mostly) beneficent tool for shared understanding; in Pat Cadigan’s 1991 classic Synners, the augmentation of reality takes on a macabre, nightmarish quality enabling corporate interests and human sensualism to run amok. Advanced AR could allow you to experience the world from another person’s perspective—or lock you permanently into your own.

For now, it’s mostly weird. Go generated dystopian headlines like the one about the teen girl in Wyoming who ran across a dead body while hunting Pokémon, or the man in Holyoke, Mass., who found himself besieged by masses of players when the game randomly designated his home a prime gathering spot. There were just as many reports of gamers rejoicing at having a reason to exercise, strangers bonding over a shared interest and parents finding new ways to play with their kids.

These early anecdotes suggest how AR could reshape notions of public space, for example, or make it more difficult to opt out of new technology. The fundamental question AR will ask of us will likely be: How do you coexist in a world where people literally see things you cannot? Whether it is ironic or merely to be expected that this future dilemma has crept into our present by way of cloying collectible pets is another matter.

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