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Why Is Everyone Going Crazy Over ‘Pokémon Go’?

We should have guessed this would happen, considering the research literature.

By Francie Diep


Deputy Editor

Ryan Jacobs

finds himself a Dodo. (Photo: Niantic)

Pokémon Go is America’s hottest craze right now. As of July 8, the augmented reality smartphone game has been downloaded on more than 5 percent of all the Android phones in America — more than Tinder, according to the website-analysis company SimilarWeb. (iPhone data seems harder to come by.) Three percent of all American Android users play the game daily.

For those not struck with the urge to catch ’em all, Pokémon Go’s popularity might seem puzzling. But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Numerous hints about augmented reality’s potential appeal have appeared in the research literature over the past few years.

In augmented reality, a phone or other device shows users a video feed of the real world with text and images superimposed on top of the feed. In Pokémon Go, players see cute Pokémon animals apparently hanging out in their bedrooms, on sidewalks, and at local parks. In addition to Pokémon Go, companies have made other augmented-reality games, advertisements, and applications that help people visualize, say, how new furniture might look in their home.

The combination of real and fantasy can be powerful—perhaps more so than virtual reality. “[Augmented reality] does not separate the user from his reality but instead uses it and realistically transforms it,” a team of American psychologists and computer scientists wrote in the journal Computers & Education in 2013. “This effect can cause a high degree of surprise and curiosity in users.”

And the technology can certainly have a great effect on children, many of whom believe the technology to literally be magic, according to studiesof augmented-reality picture books. Someargue that lesson plans that incorporate augmented reality can help children learn better because the technology feels more direct than a traditional mouse and keyboard, and can incorporate items and objects kids already care about, like their toys.

Pokémon Go’s unique place between non-digital media and virtual reality gives it another advantage. It’s easy to try. All you need is a smartphone, which more than two-thirds of American adults own.