Pokémon Go – The future of Augmented Reality and what it means for Heritage

Summer 2016 will go down in history as the year that brought 25.5 million users worldwide together in a phygital (physical + digital) quest for Pokémon

On pavements and in back gardens, in museums, libraries, shopping centres and town squares; the launch of Pokémon Go marked a true watershed moment – not just for gaming, but for the way in which people can be compelled to engage in their physical surroundings through an app on their phone.

Now that the headline-driven, crowd-gathering fervour of Pokémon Go mania has subsided heritage professionals everywhere are stepping back and asking themselves, “Wow. What happened there, and how can we apply that enthusiasm to our heritage site?”

Pokémon and Heritage: what’s the common denominator?

Let’s start by deconstructing the game’s popularity. Interestingly, Pokémon Go’s grand-scale appeal wasn’t rooted in the technology – as we mentioned, AR capabilities have been around for a while. Rather, it tapped into the nostalgic psyche of millennials who had swapped Pokémon cards in the school playground back in the 1990s, cleverly combined with the childlike thrill of a good old-fashioned treasure hunt.

Once you understand the nostalgia factor, the unexpected similarities between Pokémon Go and heritage become clear: both tap into a social and cultural capital. Historical characters, places, and spaces have a kind of magic hold over us: ingrained in our subconscious from folklore, schooldays, legend, fiction and film. Far from being a giant technological leap, AR presents a logical next step for drawing in younger audiences who can be harder to reach through traditional advertising.

If your organisation trades in historical and cultural capital, your aims are simple: to engage and inspire. For your visitors, nothing could be more engaging – or more inspiring – than standing at a historical site and looking up to see (visual AR) and hear (aural AR) history play out in front of their eyes , triggered intuitively through an AR app on their phone.

AR provides a breathtaking opportunity to transform visitors’ experiences from a one-way dialogue to an active, participatory conversation; creating audiences who will share their adventures and come back again and again.

For tech-hungry millennials and their digital-native offspring, history isn’t something to learn, it’s something to dive head-first into. Now, thanks to augmented reality (and crucially, thanks to Pokémon Go), they can: no longer is there an aura of mystery surrounding AR – it’s out there and ready for the taking.

How is AR currently used by heritage organisations?

To engage and inspire, yes. But what does AR for heritage organisations look like in practice? These case studies showcase the breadth of applications already drawing audiences using the technology:

  • Combining interactive treasure hunts within a location-based game to engage families with teenagers and children
  • Telling untold stories and reimagining lost histories, even in the absence of a physical attraction
  • Celebrating a specific event in time through song, story, and poetry using GPS sound walk technology
  • Thrilling the 18-30 demographic through an immersive outdoor GPS trail and sophisticated soundscape
  • Repurposing archive footage using visually augmented reality to fully immerse visitors in the real-life stories of recovering WW2 soldiers
  • Crafting a 15th century contemporary tour guide to give visitors an authentic tour of unexplored Renaissance streets

The future for the past

The possibilities for the use of AR in heritage are as rich as our histories. Organisations can breathe life into treasured stories and locations: not just in people’s minds and imaginations, but through sound, sight, and touch. Incorporating an app into your visitor offering will:

– Demystify the past by making history three-dimensional and immediate

– Provide a shareable experience: capture the Pokémon spirit

– Diversify audiences, seducing even those who ‘don’t do history’

– Offer a multi-layered experience for all the family with age-appropriate activities

With the courage to be bold, and the knowledge of when to keep things simple, it’s an incredibly exciting time for the heritage industry. Maybe it’s something you’ve been thinking about for a while, watching and waiting for that watershed moment; or perhaps the proliferation of Pokémon Go has opened your eyes to the opportunities that AR technology presents. Either way, the time has come to ask yourself: What could you do with AR?