There may be communications lessons for urban designers in the Pokémon Go interface. Note the very accessible aesthetic with PokeStops and lures appearing as animated fountains of light. This is the Sydney Opera House and the depiction of the Sydney Harbour road tunnel is an indication that the map is derived dispassionately from big data.
Image: supplied by Bob Perry
BOB PERRY | DIRECTOR OF SYDNEY’S SCOTT CARVER, A STUDIO OF URBAN DESIGNERS, ARCHITECTS, LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTS AND INTERIOR DESIGNERS. CHAIRMAN, PLACE LEADERS ASIA PACIFIC. & JESSE PERRY | GAME DEVELOPER, SYDNEY
Richard Sennett, in his 1974 book, The Fall of Public Man, posits: “The city is a milieu in which strangers are likely to meet.” In a city like Sydney - addicted to cars, suburbs, and motorways - both Uber and Pokémon Go seem to have augmented Sennett’s otherwise elusive milieu.
Uber rating scores, for both driver and passenger, create a contract that demands deference from each party and effectively creates a safe (digital) place for conversation; a cyber place. Uber may become more important as a new social space for strangers than for its more obvious transport function. Joanne Taylor, CEO of Place Leaders Asia Pacific, tells an entertaining story about her conversation with an Uber driver who, through conversation, determined that she was travelling to the very architect’s office where his girlfriend worked. After he identified her, Joanne declared her surprise because the young woman in question had recently relocated overseas and she was unaware that she had left her lover behind. The driver quickly recoiled and admitted that she wasn’t really his girlfriend; he just wished she were his girlfriend. Quick to protect his options with his imagined girlfriend and to contain any negative feedback, this Uber driver had found himself in the most intimate of conversations with a stranger.
Edward T Hall, in his 1966 book The Hidden Dimension, coined the term ‘proxemics’ as ‘the interrelated observations and theories of man’s use of space as a specialised elaboration of culture.’ Hall’s research revealed four distances as behavioural settings:
Intimate: 0 to 0.45m
Personal: 0.45m to 1.2m
Social: 1.2m to 3.6m
Public: 3.6m to 7.5m or more.
Can we deduce that ‘personal’ is the physical scale of the safe Uber CyberPlace; the size of the interior of a car?
Pokémon Go expands the scale of CyberPlace to all four of Hall’s distances; intimate when working alone, personal when hunting with a friend, social when gathering around a Pokestop and public at the scale of most places nominated for PokeStops.
Within its short public life, Pokémon Go has created safe physical contexts for meeting strangers. Pokémon Go players are strangers insofar as their only common interest is the game and their random attraction to the digital ecologies of Pokémon. Since its conception by Saitoshi Tajiri in 1990, the Pokémon game has always been place-based, with the collector character dashing around cobbled streets visiting buildings and parks in search of creatures.
Pokémon Go has made the virtual player real and the hunting grounds actual places. The issues surrounding a pocket park Pokestop at Sydney suburb Rhodes have swamped Helen Laverty, Place Manager at Rhodes and a Board Member of Place Leaders Asia Pacific. She described it as “a perfect storm where big data meets waterfront and park, which are apparently conducive habitats for many types of Pokémon.”
My son Jesse, who is a software designer with a degree in computer gaming, explained something that I hadn’t realised about the creation of PokeStops. Far from being randomly selected through big data and scanning maps, they have been ground-truthed and nominated by players, effectively through a form of community consultation at a global scale.
Jesse Perry writes, “One of the mechanics in Pokémon Go is the placement of virtual item collection points, called PokeStops. Items to catch and heal Pokémon can be earned from these PokeStops every 5 minutes. They can also have Lures put on them to attract wild Pokémon to the immediate area (Lures can be bought with real money).
Ideal locations are ones with many PokeStops in the vicinity of about 50 metres from each other so players can repeatedly collect from all points and by using Lures they can catch many Pokémon without moving very far, or at all. So that's why hundreds of people might flock to a tiny park in a suburban area at 2am on a Tuesday, because of the coincidental placement of these virtual PokeStops.
But it is not a coincidence. The placements of PokeStops and all their locations around the world are a result of about 2 years of human effort during the popularity of Niantic's previous title, Ingress. The position of the virtual points and the submitted photo/description of the point is the same data in both Ingress ("Portals") and Pokémon Go ("PokeStops"). Human players, not a program, added the points to the game with a significant manual submission process.
People put PokeStops at every public place they could, and they exist because they're publicly accessible and can be described with words and an image as an identifiable place. If you can describe it to someone as a meeting place, it would make a good PokeStop ("meet me at the sculpture of the mayor"). The incidents at Rhodes, and actually all over the world, are showing the effect of the disparity between population and public space area in those communities.
"Niantic used this data to make a game about socialising and catching monsters, but place makers could use this data to highlight problem developments or communities crying out for more public spaces."
Niantic used this data to make a game about socialising and catching monsters, but place makers could use this data to highlight problem developments or communities crying out for more public spaces. The global reach of this form of voluntary participation is a further dimension of CyberPlace. Niantic’s data is apparently for sale by other developers. Who else has a record of all the socially inclusive public spaces in the world within 50 metres of each other? And, is this the really smart city happening from the grass roots and for free?
“The tribal zing power of the new electronic media, the way in which they return us to the unified fields of the old oral cultures, to tribal cohesion and pre-industrialist patterns of thought, is little understood. Tribalism is the sense of the deep bond of family, the closed society as the norm of community.” Marshall McLuhan
“Mass man is a phenomenon of electric speed, not of physical quantity.” Marshall McLuhan