Archive for Commentary

Thoughts on Augmented Reality Gaming and Pokemon Go

maxresdefaultI’m completely hooked so far on Pokemon Go, the latest augmented reality game from Niantic.  For those that don’t know (the internet is saturated with people talking about it this week), Pokemon Go is an augmented reality game that you play in the real world. Using GPS, the game spawns various pocket monsters that you can capture and add to your collection. Supposedly, different types of monsters spawn in different areas.  For instance, water-type pokemon are found near rivers and lakes (although my limited play time has not supported that idea).

Instead of sitting at home to play, you must walk or bicycle (the game detects if you are driving by speed and will lock you out for safety reasons). When you go to capture a monster you have encountered, your camera shows the real world around you and the game projects a 3D monster into the scene. You throw pokeballs at the monster with your finger to capture them.  It’s a very basic mechanism, completed quickly, but very immersive, and makes the little monsters come alive in a way they never have before in the dozens of previous Pokemon games.

In addition to the monsters to hunt and discover, there are two types of permanent locations on the overlay map. There are poke stops, which you can visit every 5 minutes to receive in-game items like potions to heal your monsters and poke balls used to capture the monsters. There are also gyms, which is where the main competitive element comes into play.

When you get to level 5 with your character, you are asked to join one of three teams. These teams then compete to control the various gyms around town. You use a team of your monsters to attack monsters installed in a gym. If you win, you take it over for your team, and each day you control a gym, you get rewards to make your monsters better.

There are more intricacies involving monster evolutions and power ups and such, but I won’t bother digging into those here. The main thing you do is walk around, capturing monsters, getting stuff from poke stops, and attacking gyms to take them over for your team.

The launch has not been without problems.  The company making the game, Niantic, has struggled put up enough server infrastructure to keep up with demand.  They previously made another augmented reality game called Ingress  The game chews through your phone battery like nothing else I’ve ever used.  There are crashes and hang-ups galore in the game.  But none of that is anything more than a mild inconvenience.

This blurring of reality and gaming provides all new incentives for activity and socialization.   Reddit’s subreddit for the game is full of stories with people getting in trouble at their jobs for playing, nearly having accidents, making new friends, and even making dates.  Because it’s a massively multiplayer game in the real world, as you wander around traveling to the locations, you will encounter other players in the real world.    And then there are the odd-ball stories like the girl who found a dead body in Wyoming while playing the game.

Augmented reality gaming is not just a technological phenomenon; it’s also a sociological one.  It will be fascinating to watch how it impacts the lives of the players over time, especially as the game becomes more stable.

I live very close to a small college campus, and there about 8 poke spots (corresponding with important historical markers, public art, and buildings) and three gyms within my usual walk circuit. I’ve taken to making a loop to hit things up and catch monsters along the way. Maybe adds 10 minutes to my walk time, and seriously boosts my step count on the fitbit. Being distracted helps me tolerate the heat, too. I’m sweating horribly, but I don’t notice.   I was already walking regularly, but this has added at least 3000 to 4000 steps a day to my counter since release.  I am busy looking around for new places around town to walk so I can expand my collection.  I’ve not talked with any other players, but I see them everywhere, and it’s only a matter of time until I end up in a conversation with them, exchanging tips and talking about our best monsters.

As a science fiction writer, I’m (of course) speculating about how these experiences will change with improved technology.  Even with the clunky interface and overlay of a camera phone, the game really triggers a sense that there’s a hidden world of creatures all around us.  I’m imagining how much more immersive this experience will be when we do not need a phone to provide the visuals, and instead wear special glasses.  Google Glass, only way better.  Microsoft’s HoloLens would probably be an example of the next step in interface.

Virtual reality, to me, presents a large number of difficult-to-solve problems involving basic biology and physics.  Augmented reality circumvents a lot of the spatial problems by using real world space.  No need for virtual walls or struggling to overcome nausea with higher framerates.   Augmented reality will present its own unique problems, too, of course.  Especially this:  what are non-players going to think of those who are playing in public spaces like Pokemon Go encourages?  There will likely be some backlash, and soon, at least temporarily.

Ultimately, if you’re interested at all, you can download Pokemon Go from an app store.  It requires a pretty new phone–with Apple, at least an iPhone 5.  It remains to be seen what kind of longevity the game will have, although Niantic appears committed to developing deeper game mechanics and general improvements.   Even with the problems now,  I’m finding it to be incredibly entertaining.  Give it a try if it interests you at all.  This could be the next stage of something pretty big.  And if it helps you stay fit? Even better.



Commentary, Science Fiction

The Climate Change Conundrum for Me as a Writer

At least in my fiction, I’ve recently decided to stop addressing the climate change problem in and of itself.  That is, I’m not writing stories about trying to “solve” or “prevent” climate change.

I think we’ve passed the point where we can prevent a significant change.  From my reading lately, the global temperature increases are worse and faster than previously thought.  I recently read a report that said we may see a 5 C increase over the next 100 years.  And it’s possible we will find that to be a cautious estimate as well as we learn more and more the chain reaction of consequences of the warming we have already experienced.

Policy makers are still debating a 1.5 C change limit, but it’s clear to me that we’ve missed the chance of making that a reality.  In my fiction moving forward, I’m expecting that we will see 2-5C increase, unchecked before real actions are taken, if any.  Why so much?  Permafrost.

How will the future look with a middle-ground 3 C change?  Famine, global refugee crisis, and urban heat waves, for starters.

How will the future look with a 5 C change? It’s something all near-future SF writers should be contemplating.

My science fiction moving forward will be about dealing with the change itself, and mitigating their impacts.  You could argue that this is a pessimistic outlook and it could detract from the public will to take action, but from my perspective, the public will is nil.  Maybe more detailed and accurate depictions of the alternative in our genre and media could spur at least some preparation.

I wish I had cause for optimism on this matter, but I just don’t see any lately.



“Complain About Bad Pranks” Day

This is not a gag or a prank.  This is just a few assorted thoughts about the phenomenon of April Fools.  Or as I previously called it,  “Don’t Believe Anything Online” day.  Today, I’ve started calling it the name you see in the headline above.

I get the urge to prank–I do. There’s something intoxicating about pulling one over on other people, of convincing them of some small white lie.  I think the pleasure of that is what lies at the heart of the faux-holiday.   I can still remember my first April Fools prank ever.  I told my little sister there was a spider on the wall behind her.  There was no spider.  When she reacted with terror, I laughed and laughed.  April Fools!  She was maybe four years old.  But I got her good, right?  What a fool for trusting her big brother that something terrifying was right behind her!

When I was in college and the internet was still a new thing, the general attitude towards April Fools was that it was a fun, goofy thing.  Sometimes you’d forget the date and get taken by a gag, ha ha! All in good fun.  Over time, bigger and bigger companies got involved.  As the internet has grown in importance in our life, April Fools has grown too, until it has become something that many of us no longer look forward to;  I’d say we actively dread it now.

Google added a “mic drop” button to Gmail last night that allows someone to post a goofy Minions gif in an email and then stop receiving follow-ups.   Gmail, used by millions, if not billions, for communications of various importance, put this button perilously close to the send button.  The results have been somewhat predictable.

If you’re wondering why long-term users of the web feel a little exhausted by April Fools, it’s items like this that hold the explanation.  And when the Internet was just a side show to our regular lives, the gags were funny and hard to take seriously.  But now, it’s part of everyday life.  It’s part of our jobs and our personal lives.

Does it really make sense to have a day where every company, every bit of software becomes strangely unreliable?   Maybe we should scale it back a little, Google? Maybe “Do No Evil” should include “lay off the dumb pranks.”

That’s one perspective, and one for which I have a lot of sympathy, but I also would like to argue that April Fools enhances a powerful mental condition:  a state of general disbelief and incredulity.  You know how, when you remember the date, you read everything online with a grain of salt?

Perhaps we should be reading everything that way the other 364 days out of the year too.  If we practiced incredulity more often, we could cut down on the disinformation that populates Facebook and Twitter in an election year like cherry blossoms in spring.

It’s difficult to be on guard all the time, though.  Maybe the best we can hope for is April Fools being the one day where nobody believes anything they read.  I’ll at least harbor a hope that within a hundred years, we can stretch that out to two or three days of disbelief every year.  We could use a hell of a lot more of it in our lives, online and off.