Some thoughts on augmented reality


It’s Saturday morning; the temperature finally fell enough that we could shut down the air conditioners and open the windows overnight, and I awoke early to the sound of rain.  It’s a good way to wake up, and I made coffee and sat in bed reading a novel on my tablet.  At some point later, I realize that my wife is awake and is doing something on her phone.  That’s how all her mornings start and I don’t think much of it, until she tells me that she just found her first Pokemon, in our bedroom.  I look over and sure enough, there’s a flaming orange lizard sitting at the foot of the bed, or at least that’s what her phone screen shows.

Two reactions: first, that my nearly 30 year-old wife is playing a game that was popular when I was in middle school.  And second, that if small cartoon animals have infiltrated my house, then I need to have a serious conversation with my cat, who clearly isn’t doing her job to keep the place pest-free.

“I downloaded Pokemon Go,” Mandy tells me.  “I had to try it.  Can we go to the park, there’s tons of Pokemon stops there.”  I figure what the hell, a morning walk in the park sounds nice, before it gets too hot.

For those of you who don’t know – and these days, I really think you must be living under a rock to avoid these fads – Pokemon Go is the latest “thing.”  It’s a game app for your smartphone that uses GPS and the built-in camera to provide an “augmented reality” where you can find and capture these critters all around you.


Frankly, the technology behind it is pretty amazing.  The app knows where you are, so when you’re near water, you find water-type Pokemon; when you’re in the woods, you get forest-type.  When you find one, it appears on the screen, superimposed into the camera’s live video image, and you have to pan the camera as you try to capture it.  As a tech geek myself, I cannot deny that it is very, very cool as a concept.

Looking into the game, on the surface it seems to include an honest attempt to get people off their frigging backsides and outside.  Cool, I’m in favor of that.  While you can indeed find Pokemon in your home, you have better luck if you go out into your community and move through it.  To get the supplies you need, you have to visit virtual “stops” that are usually setup at monuments, statues, and markers.  So there’s a bit of forced exposure to culture, which I’m also down with.

Some of your critters come from eggs you collect, and in order to make the eggs hatch, you have to walk a certain distance, usually several kilometers.  It’s a double-win – movement and the metric system!  (And using the GPS, it’s smart enough to know when you’re likely walking vs when you’re cruising up the highway in your car, which doesn’t count toward your distance goals.  We tested it.)



So we go to Nay Aug park and start walking.  It’s an overcast morning and the humidity is already high, but after the heatwave we’ve had it’s still more comfortable that the past several days.  I’m aimless, just kind of following Mandy as she searches for these critters and the supply stops.  I see a House Sparrow.  I see some small orange butterflies.  I see a surprising – perhaps even concerning – number of large Gray Squirrels.  (It’s a coup!  They’re organized!)

“I’m not finding any Pokemon,” Mandy says.  She’s staring at her phone screen, where there’s a cartoon-ish map of the mark, including a little character of her walking along the path.  We change direction and head for the treehouse, then the playground.

Wildlife - Red-tailed Hawk

I see a Red-tailed Hawk circling, then a second.  I see a Titmouse perched in a tree, singing his morning song.  I see even more squirrels.

Mandy, with her face still stuck down at her screen, says she still isn’t finding anything.  I shrug and, with a nod to my work in IT, ask her if she’s RTFM (Read The F’ing Manual).  She mutters something back and plods onward, still immersed in the game.

We end up down across Roaring Brook, amid giant rhododendrons and shady hemlocks.  There’s a spot down there that I want to check out; I’m scouting locations for a possible upcoming photoshoot and think this might work.  I pull out my phone, take a few quick shots, make a few notes, and stuff it back into my pocket.  I see more butterflies and a Blue Jay.  I look for little orange newts as I navigate the rocks and damp loam, but don’t find any.

Mandy hangs back, still messing with her phone.  She apparently went online and read the instructions, and now she’s having better luck.  She announces that she caught a Pokemon!  As we start back, she catches several more.

BRENT PENNINGTON An American Robin stalks worms in the backyard on the morning of 19 April 2015.

I see an American Robin and another small flock of sparrows by the playground.

She makes us wait before we leave, as her digital lure still has a minute of time left.  “Oh,” I say, “so now you’re baiting them?”  So much for wildlife ethics.  But then again, the point of this game is the mass-capture and incarceration of imaginary creatures, so I don’t think wildlife ethics ever entered into the creator’s thought processes.  In fact, the whole thing is darkly reminiscent of turn-of-the-century “naturalists,” who collected (read “killed and mounted”) every animal they could find.

When we go out later, she spends the whole car ride on her phone, still catching Pokemon while we’re stopped at traffic lights.  Now they’re in my Jeep, too.  She shows me her list, of all the Pokemon she’s caught.  They have cutesy names like Caterpie and Zubat and Krabby.  She’s caught multiples of some of them.

My list for the day reads as follows:

  • Approx. 24 small orange butterflies (unknown species)
  • 2x Red-tailed Hawks
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • At least a dozen Gray Squirrels
  • 5x House Sparrows
  • Blue Jay
  • Daddy Longlegs
  • American Robin


I also enjoyed a walk through one of our lovelier city parks, passing through several different biome subsets.  I looked for wildlife and scouted the views.  I stood on the overlook above the creek and smelled the water on the rocks.

My lovely wife, I’m afraid, spent that time staring at her phone, viewing the same morning through its lens.  Maybe this is hypocritical, coming from the guy who spends most of his time enjoying the outdoors through the lens of a camera.  But I put the camera down between shots, and over the years I’ve gotten better and taking a moment to enjoy the scene for myself.

Aside from the fact that it made her get up and go for a walk, I’m struggling to see any benefit from this game.  It’s one more distraction, and now an immersive one, that blinds people to the real world.  Who cares about real wildlife?  You don’t win points, or get social media shares for collecting those.  (I should know, I can barely get 20 Instagram “likes” on my wildlife photos.)

On the other hand, I won; I “caught” more critters than she did.

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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1 Comment

  1. Marie Pennington

    Great commentary! Loved it!

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