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The Technology Behind Pokémon Go

Aug 1, 2016

If you’ve recently seen people bumping into things or wandering into the street while holding their smartphones, chances are they’re playing the hottest game around: Pokémon Go. But what is the technology behind these masses going to multiple Poké Stops and using Poké Balls to capture colorful, exotic characters? 


Niantic Labs—a Google spinoff whose creator was instrumental in the creation of Google Maps—uses augmented reality, a concept dating back to the 1960s. Where virtual reality takes place in a completely fabricated environment, augmented reality digitally enhances someone’s actual environment. 


Pokémon Go uses a trio of smartphone elements: GPS, camera and clock. The player creates an avatar that, through GPS mapping technology, can travel through real-world environments to capture characters at street corners, stores, parks and other places. The more characters a player catches, the more points they accumulate and the higher the level they go. The game uses a complicated algorithm to place characters in an environment and the smartphone’s clock to help create day- or evening-specific characters and settings. One of the drawbacks users report is that, because Pokémon Go uses a single server, the app often freezes and the game is a huge drain on the phone’s battery.  


Despite some technical glitches, and because augmented reality is somewhat more user-friendly than virtual reality, the game has become a runaway hit. With more than 50 million downloads worldwide, it is the top iOS and Android app and has increased Nintendo’s share price by 60%. In fact, daily use is twice that of Facebook.  

Residual Benefits

Players are intrigued by the nostalgia for the 1990s game, the game’s custom experience and the social aspects of meeting other players. It is even cited as a positive way to get often-sedentary gamers some fresh air and exercise. 

Other Applications

This may be, however, the tip of the iceberg. As the technology progresses, augmented reality can be used to help in health care, disaster recovery, manufacturing and a litany of other non-gaming areas.  


Pokémon Go is a free game that offers some in-app purchases. (These purchases alone have generated $35 million thus far and may top $3 billion within 2 years.) But there are a variety of ways to generate additional revenue streams. Some stores are using virtual “lures” to make their establishment a Poké Stop and thus attract potential customers. There is also the possibility of incorporating advertising and sponsorship opportunities into the game. Niantic may even start licensing its technology to other gaming sites, which raises privacy and security concerns. 

Is Big Brother Watching?

Many game users log in through their Google accounts. And according to the permission fine print, Niantic has access to players’ email accounts, Google Drive documents, search history, photos and more. Further, Niantic has the right to sell/share the data with “unspecified” third parties.  While no security breaches or hacking episodes have been reported as of yet, all parties concerned should stay vigilant.

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