Google Design’s SPAN is an interesting conference, literally spanning continents and their pockets of communities—all in the name of design and technology. During a panel at the recent SPAN LA on October 27th (its Tokyo counterpart taking place in early October), Dennis Hwang, visual and interaction designer at Niantic Labs, discussed the journey to bring the augmented reality hit Pokémon Go to the smallest of entertainment screens: our phones.
“[It] was a brief moment of utopian, ideal society happening,” explained Hwang of Pokémon Go’s surprise hit. Though while Ingress had millions of downloads, the amount of concurrent players never truly matched the “crazy few months” following Pokémon Go’s launch. You remember, when you couldn’t walk down the street without seeing people swiping upwards on their phones. But the idea of an interactive app, even before Pokémon Go and Ingress, spawned from a very earnest desire. The desire to fix our unhealthy relationships with our phones.
to fix our unhealthy relationships with phones
Hwang cited seeing parents at a beautiful place like a beach with their kids, and seeing them merely glued to their phones, probably answering emails or something, as their children pined for attention. “So we were like, hey we have this amazing technology all around us wherever we go,” said Hwang. “Is there anything we can do to make the relationship between device and people a healthier thing?” Niantic Labs, originally a part of Google before going independent in 2015, founded Field Trip, an informational app that used GPS to inform users about nearby art and architecture. It wasn’t much of a success. It wasn’t until Niantic Labs were able to gamify what worked with Field Trip and rework it for the hacker-centric Ingress and later, Pokémon Go (a mechanically similar game to Ingress).
Pokémon Go is an anomaly, maybe solely in the fact that it’s a piece of technology that has tangibly affected every day lives. From players changing their route to work to pass by a park, or even going as far as to make a permanent alteration on their appearance. “When you have real world people moving about using these augmented reality apps, they started kind of really caring about how it was changing their life and the influence it had on their everyday lives,” explained Hwang. “So people started getting tattoos.”
No matter how fleeting those initial “crazy few months” may have been, Niantic Labs utilized the small screen in ways that went beyond good design or utilitarian usage. Where the creators twisted something otherwise sour and attention deterring into a positive, and even social tool. And most of all, it brought people together.
You can read more about SPAN LA here.
Header photo by Caty McCarthy.