Some might say that it is the Pet Rock of this generation: Pokémon Go. With yet another excuse to bury themselves in their smart phones, young adults have been absent-mindedly stepping into the road, or other inappropriate places, with greater frequency than usual — as they become literal followers of the game’s characters.
I believe that Pokémon Go is indicative of a broader trend.
Recently, Elon Musk remarked that he believed that we are living in a computer simulation. “There’s a one in billions chance that this is base reality,” he said. He sees the evolution of computing power and the overwhelming attraction to virtual reality. As a Silicon Valley thought leader, he calculates it as an obvious outcome of technology’s indefatigable march forward: we live in a simulation operated by our distant descendants. Pretty heavy stuff. We are living in the film “The Matrix,” where billions of humans are neurally connected, and are unaware that the world is actually virtual reality.
While I am not sure whether Elon Musk is right about whether we are living in a simulation, I do believe that as a result of the success of Pokémon Go a reality that is shaped only by what we see around us will be encroached upon more often by experiences that were previously only digital in nature.
As virtual reality hardware and software are coming on line, there has been a discussion in the technology community as to whether there yet exists a “killer app” for virtual reality. Technologists use the term killer app to describe a software product that drives consumer adoption of new technology hardware. For example, spreadsheets were the killer app that drove the adoption of PCs into the business world, and iTunes was the killer app that drove adoption of the IPod.
Is Pokémon Go the killer app for virtual reality?
Based upon its explosive growth over the last month, many think that Pokémon Go may be a candiddate. The financial markets appear to think so – the stock price of Nintendo has doubled since Pokémon Go was released.
What has caused Pokémon Go to grow its user base so explosively? I spoke recently with Jonah Berger, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School about the Pokémon Go phenomenon. He believes its popularity relies upon its visibility in the physical world – people can see their friends playing and congregating. Even in our hyper connected online world, what those close to us are doing in the physical world most influences us from a marketing point of view. It is not virtual reality that is driving its adoption. There is something else entirely.
What is exciting Pokémon Go users is the layering of virtual reality into the real world. As an enhancement, or augmentation, it takes the commonplace and makes it more engrossing and engaging. It attracts crowds on line and in the virtual world. It blends previously separated worlds and creates a new reality that is a bit of both.
Because it is not solely virtual in nature, Pokémon Go may not be the killer app that drives virtual reality hardware adoption. It is, however,an indication that given the choice between physical reality, and reality that is enhanced, a reality where the lines between the two worlds are blurred may be preferable to consumers. The success of Pokémon Go will undoubtedly encourage future efforts to blur those lines.
Whether you think this is a good thing or not is up to you. I just hope that like Neo in the Matrix that when we are faced with the choice of participating in this change we get to exercise free will and be able to make a choice.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of Tandem NSI, an Arlington-based organization that seeks to connect innovators to government agencies. He is host of “Forward Thinking Radio” on SiriusXM, a business and policy program, and lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.