Gotta catch 'em all: The deep layers of Pokemon GO

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Yes, this is about Pokemon GO. Or, at least, about the layers beneath the wildly popular augmented reality game. At first blush Pokemon GO looks like a simple, engaging and remarkably social pastime. But below the surface are deep levels of complexity, intention and future prospects.

But, let's deal with the surface first. There has been, over the past couple of weeks since the game was introduced, a fair bit of "hey you kids, get off of my lawn!" type commentary about the game. That's because players in search of Pokemons can move in herds, dash about in parks, gather around "gyms" in clusters and generally leave the non-players around them bemused and sometimes annoyed.

But, I suspect, a lot of folks who are grumpy about the game are the same ones who, in the past have said, "Why can't kids today get outdoors and meet other people instead of staring at their phones all day?" Well, grandpa, two out of three isn't shabby.

Personally, I've found the game a joy to play. It is innocent, charming and I've met other players in parks or in front of the game's gyms. The players are good natured, happy and willing to share what they've learned. Plus, they're discovering parts of their city they may never have visited before, and getting a good walk in the bargain.

There have been reports of bad guys luring players for ill intent and about gamers harming themselves by not looking where they are going. But, I'd wager in the last two weeks there have been orders of magnitudes more injuries caused by bikes and swimming pools, and no one is writing stories about them being hazardous this summer.

But, all that's just the patina on the geographic, geophysical and GPS mapping that's been going on for years by the company that created the game -- Niantic Labs. Niantic was founded in 2010. Back then it was part of Google, but it spun off as a separate company in 2015. The head of Niantic is John Hanke. Hanke worked on the original Google Maps team and brought his skills in geospatial mapping to the new company.

When Niantic was still part of Google, the startup released Field Trip, a smartphone app I used back in 2012 to show me points of interest in cities I visited for the first time. Later that year the company released an enormously complex augmented-reality GPS-based game called Ingress. You can still play the game today. It's attracted a loyal but niche following worldwide. Since 2012, those players have created portals in the game using landmarks in their neighbourhoods and cities, globally.

If this all sounds familiar -- alerts to local landmarks, important game locations based on spots in town only locals would know, that's because Niantic used all of those crowdsourced portal locations from Ingress to create the gyms and Poke Spots Pokemon GO players are dashing to. So, if you're wondering how it's possible that a landmark in your town is called "Creepy Fake Stainglassed Window" or whatever, thank an Ingress player.

But, there is another layer to the game. For a vast majority of players, Pokemon GO is their first exposure to an augmented reality experience. In the game, landmarks are mapped onto the Pokemon GO world on a smartphone. But when you try to capture a Pokemon with your phone, that character is displayed on top of the real world your phone is seeing with its rear camera. In other words, a new dimension of the world is placed on top of it like an acetate only game players can see. This kind of augmented reality experience has been around for years. Yelp, for example, has a "monocle" mode that superimposes points of interest over the real world. But, nothing has come close to exposing millions of people to augmented reality like Pokemon GO.

The game will cause AR experiences to blossom and will open the door to devices (like better versions of Google Glass) that will serve up AR to average people already comfortable with it via the game.

And, finally, Pokemon GO is just an infant. Ingress is a rich, detailed social world with far more capabilities than the version of Pokemon GO we see now. For those who think this amusing little game is a fad, you aren't looking deep enough or seeing enough layers. But they're there, like an acetate overlay on the game you see now.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Virginia State Parks/flickr

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