New digital technology made popular with the masses through the phenomenon of Pokemon Go and Snapchat apps.

If you've been out in your local neighbourhood this week, you may have wondered if the zombie apocalypse was upon us.

All over New Zealand, people are wandering around with their arms extended, staring at their smartphones, stopping only to frantically swipe their screen then continuing on, seemingly oblivious to their surroundings.

The reason is a new game called Pokemon Go, where players try to catch virtual Pokemon characters through an app that uses their smartphone's GPS, compass, accelerometer and gyroscope to combine the online game with the real environment where the player is standing.

Using a device to interact with virtual objects seemingly placed in the real world is thought to be the next big thing in consumer gaming. Terms like "augmented" and "mixed" reality are being used to describe the concept of animated graphics being superimposed over real world environments in real time. Where virtual reality replaces the entire real environment with an artificial one, augmented reality enhances real life views with artificial images.


Software companies have been criticised over the past few years for creating sedentary computer games which are thought to contribute to recent increases in childhood obesity. These new digital treasure hunts might help to reverse that trend as they require the players to be physically active as they walk through real neighbourhoods looking for virtual objects.

The game is a very primitive form of augmented reality - for instance, the Pokemon characters don't change size as you move around or get closer to them - but has been great at introducing the public to this new type of digital interaction. A slightly more advanced version is used by Snapchat, which determines the shape of your face and adapts its graphics so you can virtually vomit rainbows, grow dog ears or become a virtual pirate.

For the grown-ups who don't want to run around the city chasing alien-like creatures, augmented reality apps come in much more useful forms. Ikea, the furniture store, has created an app that allows you to virtually place the furniture from their catalogue into your room so you can see how it looks and fits with your other furnishings before buying it.

The Google Translate app translates words around you (on signs, for instance), and overlays the words in your language in the same visual format in real time, letting you easily navigate foreign cities.

Concerns about Pokemon characters appearing in the middle of roads and down dark alleyways has resulted in police issuing an official warning to players that they shouldn't forget about hazards in real life. This raises questions as to whether children need to be supervised when playing the game.

Christchurch game design company Geo AR prioritised child safety when they released their free augmented reality app Sharks in the Park. Designed for 9- to 11-year-olds, the game automatically pauses and shows a warning if the child gets too close to a road.

New Zealand is at the forefront of augmented reality design with Sir Richard Taylor and Weta Workshop partnering with one of the world's most exciting augmented reality start-up companies, Magic Leap. Wellington based 8i is also leading internationally with its unique technology which records real life people and converts them into convincing holograms for augmented and virtual reality games.

With developers and the public now able to purchase Samsung's Gear VR, Microsoft's Hololens and Oculus Rift headsets, Pokemon Go has given the public a frame of reference for the incredible augmented reality world that is about to come and New Zealand's early involvement has the potential to put us clearly on the map of this new imaginary world.


Dr Michelle Dickinson, also known as Nanogirl, is an Auckland University nanotechnologist who is passionate about getting Kiwis hooked on science. Tweet her your science questions @medickinson