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| 07/20/16

Pokémon Go, augmented reality, and climate outreach


The wildly popular mobile augmented-reality game Pokémon Go launched this month and has shattered download records, eclipsed Twitter and Tinder in number of users. It has annoyed curmudgeons, and delivered windfall profits to small businesses who have seen foot traffic soar, since people have to physically walk around their neighborhood to play the game. This involves spotting cartoon characters the game ‘places’ at certain geographical points, like virtual birdwatching. Environmental groups, museums, and parks are taking advantage of the fad to engage in climate outreach.

This past week, Illinois-based activists with NextGen Climate, a US-wide global warming advocacy organization, used the game as a tool for field organizers to meet people, discuss climate issues at stake in the upcoming national elections, and register millennials to vote. The organization purchased items called ‘lures’, which attract wild Pokémon characters that players are trying to catch, and dropped them at sites in the game called ‘Pokéstops’ that are laid over real-world locations. NextGen members dropped the lures around Logan Square in Chicago to draw players to the area. When the players did indeed turn up, the activists used the opportunity to talk to them about climate change, how to register to vote and committing to voting for candidates backing clean-energy solutions. The group says that it is experimenting with such outreach strategies that it hopes will engage young people more than TV ads or direct mail.

They’re not alone. Last May, California climate advocacy group Climate Access launched an augmented reality pilot project funded by the Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA), supervised by IPCC contributor and climate change communication specialist Susanne Moser—who recently spoke at the University of Victoria. The project simulates what different locations along the California coast will look like as the sea level rises. And Massachusetts high school students are using an MIT-developed augmented reality app named Time Lapse 2100 that has gamers set different energy and climate policies and then lets them explore in their environment to see what would happen if those policies were effected.

The efforts may be more than a passing trend. Preliminary research suggests that augmented reality tech may have a much more powerful effect on changing behaviour than traditional education efforts. In one study, college students played a Stanford-developed simulation showing how ocean acidification affects purple coral, and were followed weeks after playing the game. The game players changed their attitude toward the problem for longer than a control group that only watched a video about the same phenomenon. And in a study using a virtual reality (VR) game where players ‘feel’ as though they are chopping down a tree, players’ paper consumption drops sharply and they use more recycled-paper products.

Researchers hypothesize that the sustained behaviour change is possible with  new immersive technologies such as augmented reality and particularly VR as a result of the brain treating the virtual experience as a real one. “One can viscerally experience disparate futures and get firsthand experience about the consequences of human behavior,” cognitive psychologist and director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab Jeremy Bailensen told Smithsonian magazine.


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Environmental groups, museums, and parks are taking advantage of Pokémania to engage in climate outreach

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