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Pokemon Go and mHealth: Augmented Reality Hits Its Tipping Point

Sarah Morgan

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Remember augmented reality? Here at Intouch, we’ve been telling you about it for half a decade or so, along with the rest of the tech community. Everyone was convinced that it was going to change everything quite quickly. Then Google Glass came … and went. Then the hype about Oculus Rift came … and went.

So what’s changed? Well, there’s been no groundbreaking new technology created. It’s just that there was a small app released last week. You may have heard of it. It’s called Pokémon Go.

It was rigorously beta tested, has been released during the perfect season for outdoor exploring, and exploits Millennial nostalgia. It’s the perfect storm.

Vox calls it “an inescapable force of nature.” Download numbers are growing exponentially. It’s the biggest mobile game in U.S. history, with more people using it than Twitter, and spending more time on it than on WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook Messenger.

Half a million people have joined the Reddit community dedicated to discussing the game. Players are invading the 9/11 Memorial and the Holocaust Museum. One player found a dead body. Grown men are literally falling off cliffs. Thieves are using it to lure victims

And again: it’s only been one week.

As CNN put it (video): “The huge deal here is that Nintendo has finally figured out how to augment reality.”  Whether or not the millions of players are referring to it as such — and whether or not this particular app proves to be a flash in the pan or an ongoing amusement — thanks to Pokémon Go, augmented reality has officially gone mainstream.

Whether or not the millions of players are referring to it as such — and whether or not this particular app proves to be a flash in the pan or an ongoing amusement — thanks to Pokémon Go, augmented reality has officially gone mainstream.

Unsurprisingly, sponsored involvement is coming soon to Pokémon Go. And what does it all mean for us in the mHealth world? (Besides the fact that Pokémon-related injuries are piling up.) Well, Pokémon Go could indeed have huge big implications for health — both specifically, and from a macro point of view.

Specifically? Imagine that, come September, health providers sponsor Poké Stops, and kids collect rare Pokémon at back-to-school health checks. Schools work Pokémon Go into field day. Fitness centers parlay the interest and feature similar outdoor activities, from insect collecting (the original inspiration for Pokémon) to geocaching to orienteering. Therapists work game-play into treatment for those suffering from anxiety disorders like agoraphobia, drawing them to explore the world and use their devices as the impetus to interact with real people.

And very specifically, it’s easy to see health providers and manufacturers sponsoring features of the game, and getting in on branded tie-ins — from bandages to fresh fruit, the options are endless. (If no Type 2 diabetes brand is already in sponsorship talks, they’re missing the boat.)

In a more general sense? mHealth has always had its doubters looking for proof of concept. It’s hard to get a more tangible one than a few million people running around outdoors. They’re not doing it for personal gain — just for a game.

We all know that it’s impossible to guarantee the virality of something, but it’s possible to look at a success story from a behavioral economics point of view and see what’s made it work.

Will we see pharma companies’ branding stops, gyms and monsters? Will we see youth health change, as couch potatoes are drawn into the sunlight with games that overlay virtual playing fields on real life? A week in, it may be too soon to say, but it’s certain that we’re in a whole new world for augmented reality.

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