William Gibson was there first. Of course he was. He almost always seems to get there first. I’m talking Pokemon Go, folks. Not the Pokemon part, but the Go part. The use of augmented reality for the enjoyment and/or education of…well, anybody.
In his 2007 novel Spook Country Gibson describes an art project referred to as ‘locative art’. Art that’s meaningfully tied to a specific location.
“Cartographic attributes of the invisible,” she said, lowering the bowl. “Spatially tagged hypermedia. The artist annotating every centimeter of a place, of every physical thing. Visible to all, on devices such as these.” She indicated Alberto’s phone, as if its swollen belly of silver-tape were gravid with an entire future.
Granted, what Gibson created in his head is a LOT more cool than Pokemon. His fictional locative artists created geo-located scenes depicting the deaths of celebrities — River Phoenix outside the Viper Room, Helmut Newton in the driveway of the Chateau Marmont. These scenes were invisible to anybody not using the tech, visible to those who were.
The concept of Pokemon Go is much the same — it’s not actually there, but it’s there to be seen. And in the case of Pokemon, there to be caught. I’m sure at some point Gibson will comment on Pokemon Go, but I wouldn’t even try to guess what he’ll think about it. It’s certainly not the sort of augmented reality he had in mind; he said he wanted locative art to be lowbrow, “almost like graffiti.” There’s nothing highbrow about Pokemon, but they are exceedingly commercial.
Gibson uses locative art as an example of the eversion of cyberspace. Turning cyberspace inside out. The ubiquity of cellular connectivity allows what used to be an activity located only in the “consensual hallucination” of the online world to filter into the physical world. In the novel, this sort of augmented reality artwork required a ‘visor’ and a phone. Niantic, the makers of Pokemon Go, have eliminated the visor. That means you — and anybody else — can now wander around your neighborhood and discover the shared hallucination of Pokemon lurking in the neighbor’s azaleas. Or on the sidewalk in front of a shop.
In 2007 Gibson, through one of his characters in Spook Country, says this:
“The most interesting ways of looking at the GPS grid, what it is, what we do with it, what we might be able to do with it, all seemed to be being put forward by artists. Artists or the military. That’s something that tends to happen with new technologies generally; the most interesting applications turn up on the battlefield on ir a gallery.”
Gibson left out gaming. Clever guy, Gibson, but not 100% prescient. The gaming industry sometimes seems to exist at the intersection of the military and art, and they’re quick to embrace new technologies.
Regardless of Pokemon Go’s long-term success or failure as a game, this mixing of the real and the virtual is very cool and has a lot of potential for creative work. I hope this sparks a lot more uses of augmented reality by the gaming industry, by artists, and maybe even writers. Why the hell not?
William Gibson. I declare.