'Pokemon GO' CEO Says VR is So Good It’s a “Problem for Society”

Getty Images / Alex Wong

Niantic CEO John Hanke thinks VR is great. So great, in fact, that it might actually ruin our lives. Hanke, whose company debuted the wildly-successful Augmented Reality game Pokémon GO, sees virtual reality escapism as a potential issue for his children’s psychological health.

“My thing about VR is I’m afraid it can be too good, in the sense of being an experience that people want to spend a huge amount of time in,” Hanke said at the Mixed Reality Summit in London on Tuesday, according to a report by “I mean, I already have concerns about my kids playing too much Minecraft, and that’s a wonderful game.”

His issue is that virtual reality could offer much of the seeming appeal of real-world interaction, with few or none of the personal benefits that come with entering those sorts of genuine social situations.

“We’re human beings and there’s a lot of research out there that shows we’re actually a lot happier when we get exercise, when we go outside - and outside in nature in particular,” Hanke said. “I think it’s a problem for us as a society if we forgo that and spend all of [our] time in a Ready Player One-style VR universe.”

The solution, Hanke says, is augmented reality, the technology that Pokémon GO uses. In AR, computers blend together simulated elements with a real-time video feed of the user’s surroundings. When applied to a smartphone, it can turn a Galaxy S7 into a scanner for invisible Pokemon, but the real potential lies in more natural AR interfaces like glasses.

“These games can encourage people to be more active than they would normally be,” Hanke said. “As a parent, part of my motivation for building this kind of game was to try and get my kids out of the house.”

Not only does AR naturally involve more movement and engagement with the world, but AR games with a “multiplayer” aspect can forge real friendships in the outside world. And with game mechanics to offer an excuse for that interaction to begin, it could even help put some cracks in the barrier that many feel exists between strangers in modern society.

Hanke sees AR as a means to use many of the advantages of virtual reality, but avoid the pitfalls. It might be best for Niantic to focus on releasing solid updates for the AR products they’ve already released, but there’s no doubt that the company has big plans for the future.

“With AR, there’s a huge amount of potential to do things that really do have a positive impact on people,” he told the conference. “I think there’s a ton of good that can be done.”

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