A study by Facebook found that smartphone users checked their devices around 150 times per day. That was three years ago. If we now included Pokémon Go in this data, it’s probably a vast underestimate.
The recent Pokémon phenomena has seen cities full of ‘phone zombies’ moving around like the walking dead, glued to their handsets and ignoring other humans. It’s not just a lack of socializing that’s a challenge, there have also been problems with physical safety. A man in California fell to his death, whilst playing the game, and Pokémon Go was linked to a recent homicide in San Francisco. It’s also raised wider concerns about the negative impact on children in countries such as Malaysia, and even banned outright in Iran.
Safety concerns and moral outrage towards technology are not new though. There were widespread complaints about the use of SMS when it first became popular and early camera phones were blamed for ‘happy slapping’ incidents in schools. One London borough was so concerned about ‘phone zombies’ that lampposts in the busy Brick Lane area were padded to make them ‘text safe’.
The societal and safety challenges of Pokémon Go all feel rather familiar. However, the problem has been amplified by the immersiveness of the app. That comes less from the augmented reality element and more from the addictiveness of the game play. The challenge is that, unlike many other games, Pokémon Go takes the user into the real world, where a whole raft of potential dangers lurk. Whilst the onus is on the user to act responsibly, you only have to consider the number of people who still text and drive to realise that not everyone uses common sense.
Developers will need to seriously think about incorporating safety features into their app. It could be linked to maps to warn users of danger areas. Perhaps a crowd sourced system, such as the traffic app Waze, could be used to notify other users of problems.
In cities though, we need a more reactive approach. In the future, for example, perhaps phones will need to include proximity sensors that loudly warn users of an approaching bus.