How Pokémon Go Will Change Just About Everything

This article first appeared on the Brookings Institution site.

Pokémon Go has ignited the digital world.

Every news organization has reported on why Pokémon Go, the smartphone app based on the Japanese cartoon game from the 1990s, is extraordinarily popular. The smartphone game is making people exercise, helping with depression and mental health and it’s proving that millennials play games on their phones in sacred places and while driving.

But Pokémon Go is more than just a game—it’s a primitive portal into technology that is transforming our world. Pokémon Go uses augmented reality (AR) and GPS to connect to real-world places, creating a cartoon-monster scavenger hunt with profound implications.

Pokémon Go’s augmented reality overlays a picture of a Pikachu on the view through the user’s smartphone camera. Augmented reality has been used in glasses and other visual aids, but Pokémon Go is arguably the first widely accessible and free version of the technology. Anyone with a smartphone has access to the game.

However, it’s only a primitive version of AR and the technology to come. The app is littered with issues—the servers crash daily, the app freezes frequently and even if the server gods are kind, the app quickly consumes data and drains battery. It is slow, unreliable, and glitchy.

Though it may be just a game, it’s a brief insight into the technology our world will wield 10 or even five years from now.

07_30_Pokemon_Everything_01 A boy shows a mobile phone displaying the augmented reality mobile game "Pokemon Go" by Nintendo in Tokyo, Japan July 22, 2016. Darrell West writes that augmented reality means that emergency services can track down victims or your house will automatically call 911 if it’s on fire. Toru Hanai/reuters

Augmented reality of the future means instead of seeing a Charizard in front of your apartment building, a fireman can see the structural vulnerabilities, temperatures and exit routes. The Internet of things (IoT) adding billions of sensors means that instead of tracking down virtual monsters, wearables will help emergency services track down victims or your house will automatically call 911 if it’s on fire.

Fifth generation (5G) wireless networks and the IoT will be transformative to healthcare in the near future. For example, wearables will allow doctors to proactively treat and diagnose patients, and 5G networks will enable the instant transfer of high quality imaging, letting patients receive quality care from specialists around the world and breaking down barriers built by cost and geography.

However, when the world relies on AR, IoT, and 5G networks for more than a game, there are serious implications if there is latency or networks go offline completely. It’s one thing when Pokémon Go freezes in the midst of catching another Weedle, but it’s another issue entirely when computers freeze or even lag in a world where robots perform surgery.

Another way Pokémon Go is exposing future issues is in security and privacy. Originally, the app allowed Niantic, the company Nintendo created the app with, to access everything on the players’ Google accounts.

That has since changed, but it raises serious questions about what privacy protections will be in place when there are sensors that monitor more sensitive information, like heart conditions and medical history. Hospitals are already facing privacy challenges: instead of just stealing patient data, hackers have held whole hospital IT systems hostage, demanding ransoms.

The potential for security breaches lead to the confounding question: are pieces of IoT really “smart” if they’re stupid when it comes to security? According to Nonresident Senior Fellow John Villasenor, “The internet of things will be useless unless it is an internet of secure things.”

It may seem silly that a scavenger hunt for cartoon monsters is the beginning of a new world, but few are able to predict what technology wave we ride into the future. Pokémon Go may be a fad, but the technology behind it is not: augmented reality is coming, IoT is coming, and 5G networks are almost here.

It may take the form of an infuriatingly glitchy game from the ’90s that crashes more consistently than it works, but it’s a glimpse into the future.

Darrell M. West is Vice President and Director, Governance Studies and Founding Director, Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. Sierra Fuller contributed to this post.

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