Pokémon Go: our Movement, our Future

You’re on the internet, so you’re aware of Pokémon Go. Quite simply, if aliens had been surveiling our cities’ by video only for the past 20 years, its release would cause them to go back to the drawing board trying to understand our movement patterns, and how they relate to the computers we carry around in our pockets. It has also produced (harmless) scenes that resemble a disaster movie:

This article explores the ways this phenomenon could affect how we move, both now and into our increasingly-digital future.  

Movement & Pokémon Go – The Short Term

Whether it’s Pokémon Go or some copycat, it’s clear a new category in the mobile gaming market just popped wide open. And while it’s too early to tell just how big the category will be, I don’t think it’s farfetched to imagine that  seeing people holding up their smartphones, interacting with some digital entity, could become a common trapping (or script) of 21st century public space.

For the short term, the effect of this development on the way we move is pretty straight forward: more walking! While some people may mock the idea that nerds slowly shuffling around a park, glued to their smartphones, could be considered exercise, there is no denying Pokémon Go has gotten a lot of people some extra cardio. And while at this point all we have to go on is online testimonials and news reports (plus other random oddities, like the existence of POGO trainers) it seems a lot of people are using the game to integrate more walking into their routine; and that a lot of people who never get exercise, suddenly have a compulsion to do so.

And increased daily walking is great for our brains specifically—those who do more of it possess a larger hippocampus [1] (the shrinking of which is seen in Alzheimer’s patients), and are at a lower risk of stroke [2]. Results of a one year walking treatment study in seniors [3] found that increased daily walking improved seniors short-term memory, and that these seniors also demonstrated an increase in white matter integrity in the temporal and frontal lobes, meaning the connections between the neurons in these regions were better preserved. Walking therapy (and light aerobic exercise in general) has been found to improve the mental well being of seniors [4], and to make a significant positive impact in individuals’ battle with depression [5], as well as a host of other mental disorders [6].


Connectome of all the connecting white matter tracts (or axons) in the brain. The left hemisphere is pictured on the bottom, the right on top, with the axons of the corpus callosum (which connects the two) in red in between.

Movement & Pokémon Go – The Long Term (ie, Philosophical Stuff)

I’m 28. My first three classrooms didn’t have computers in them. Today every classroom I’m in has a ratio of computers-to-humans of considerably greater than 1:1. There are computers in our cars, our appliances, our medical implants, and of course—crucially—our pockets.

Our relation to communication technology has been in a state of constant revolution the past two decades, except in one respect—our actual physical interaction with technology. How to communicate using morse code? Tapping with your fingers. A typewriter? Tapping with your fingers. With your iphone 6? Aside from some swiping—tapping with your fingers. This is not to say that all this progress has been in vain, or flawed in some way [7]—the point is that, from a design perspective innovating how we physically interact with digital technology has not been prioritized (and has been fairly inside-the-box when it is prioritized).

It’s not for lack of a good reason to do so—phones (in addition to distracting us [8]), cause us to walk slower and not as straightly [9]; to drag our feet [10]; to move our head and neck in phase with the device [11], reducing our balance and opening us up to going ass-over-teakettle (this balance detriment occurs when we’re standing still as well [12]). And moreover, the bustling nature of our increasingly-urban lifestyles amplifies this effect—as it’s been shown the more distracting our environment is, the more smartphone use affects the way we walk [13].


(if I was better at photoshop, I’d have had the driver on his phone too)

And if you’re reading this thinking kids who grow up with these technologies will become increasingly adept at this multi-tasking, one recent study found that young (compared to older) adults are less likely to alter the amount of attention paid to their environment when the amount of distractions in their environment increases. This led these researchers to hypothesize that those more comfortable with smartphones may be at greater risk of having an accident [14]. To sum: we simply aren’t as effective bipedal movement machines when we’re using our smartphones.


So how could Pokémon Go (or whatever it catalyzes, be it 5, 10, or 20 years from now) make an impact on these issues? If it could draw enough attention the awkward fit between us and our devices, perhaps it could nudge the economic incentives towards the development of more elegant and kinematically-thoughtful ways of interacting with our messengers, browsers, calendars etc. Quite simply, if augmented-reality mobile games are The Next Big Thing, this will accelerate the efforts of technology companies hoping to cash in on our desire to play without walking off a cliff.


But what would Pokémon GO (or moreover, the smartphone experience) look like without the smartphone? It could come through augmented reality glasses or contact lenses. It could come through a seamless artificial intelligence (AI), talking you through the navigation of a park, so you can use your senses for what they are for—guiding your movements (This potentiality recently took a huge step forward, with the insanely-successful kickstarter of this AI-personal trainer).

Footage from a drone? Or view from a landing plane in 2030? 

I certainly don’t have any definitive answer to this ‘What Next?’ question. If you have a thought to share on what could/should/will replace the smartphone, chat us up on Facebook or in the comment section! And good luck catching them all (or watching others doing so)!


[1] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25483019

[2] http://stroke.ahajournals.org/content/45/1/194.short

[3] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22674729

[4] http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11136-014-0762-0

[5] http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3109/09638288.2014.972579

[6] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25807153

[7] In fact, it makes perfect sense, as we’ve only truly entered an era where smartphone evolution is incremental (that is, driven primarily by microprocessor prowess) in the past 5 years or so. Prior to this period, it was completely logical to focus low-hanging innovative fruit that came from improving the user-experience of the smartphone as a piece-of-plastic-that-goes-in-the-pocket-that-you-tap-on-with-the-fingers.

[8] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22269509

[9] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22226937

[10] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25010143

[11] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24465402

[12] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4521688/

[13] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26222430

[14] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25193796