Augmented reality?

aug·ment (verb) 1. make (something) greater by adding to it.

The term “augmented reality” is all over the news thanks to the wildly successful launch of Pokémon Go.  The game is an app for your telephone and takes you outside to capture the elusive Pokémon characters right in your own backyard and beyond.  So while this game has you hunting cartoons on the street, why is it called augmented reality? Does this game somehow make reality better? This question has been puzzling me about as much as this fascination with Pokémon Go.  

First I must admit that I am 49 years old, which is 7 in dog years, so that means I’m more prone to lie around growling at squirrels instead of chasing them.  Perhaps I have also reached that stage of “old fuddy-duddy,” which I always vowed I would never be. Of course the other problem with being 49 is computers were never part of my life until I was well into my 20s and there was no sign of reality in a monochrome screen using WordPerfect.

So I admit I’m not “with it.” I am also too old to understand the Pokémon craze: we had hockey cards and made up games from materials available: rubber bands, straws, stones, popsicle sticks and the ever popular matches.  Nothing could be more satisfying than melting my sisters Barbies. Eventually I bought my first game system called Nintendo and I played Super Mario and Zelda until the wee hours of the morning, with all the vim and zombie-like ambition of Pokémon hunters.  (Although with less chance of tripping or being run-over by a car).

Of course there are a lot of people raving about the benefits of Pokémon Go.  Finally, parents are seeing their children outside, socializing with other Pokémon hunters instead of staring at computer screens all day and socializing only through online voice streaming.  Some psychologists are writing about Pokémon’s ability to reduce social anxiety while others are discussing the benefits of people “discovering” nature while hunting Pokémon. “Look Mom, I saw a real turtle while hunting for a Squirtle!”

Perhaps there’s some good coming out of this, but I would like to point out that Canada has one advantage that many countries do not possess: the night sky.  This may seem a little odd for people living in Canada, but some of my former students from China, Korea and Japan, told me their most vivid memory of Canada was being able to see the stars and, if they were lucky, the northern lights.  When you live in a large city ablaze with lights and large, blinking Samsung signs, you lose the night sky and for many of them it was like seeing the sky for the first time.

I can almost hear the collective “so what” from my readers, but I can tell you, when you are some place that is dark, truly dark, the night sky is absolutely incredible to behold.  This June I was up at the family cottage at Bon Echo Park, three hours Northeast of Toronto. It’s far enough from Toronto that there’s no light pollution and on the first night I sat out and tried to remember the constellations while gazing at the milky way, which looked like a trail of sparkling confetti had been dumped across the night.

On our last night, one of the guests brought his telescope and set it up to view Saturn.  Of course I’d seen Saturn in the night sky before, a little glowing speck beside it’s much brighter neighbours, Venus, Jupiter and Mars. Through the telescope I could see the planet and its beautiful striped rings in plain view, just like the NASA photographs.  Amazing! After 49 years, Saturn finally became real to me and I understood what my students must have felt about seeing the night sky for the first time.

So what does this all mean, you ask, and what does it have to do with Pokémon?  Well, it seems to me, the more we get drawn into the virtual world or this world of augmented reality, the less we appreciate reality, yet reality is eminently more fascinating.  If you truly want to augment reality, buy a telescope and see Saturn’s rings for the first time, search for comets or distant star clusters. Augment reality by looking through a microscope, going scuba diving, hiking in the forest, traveling to a distant country or just reading about the incredible things in this world and beyond.  Eventually you’ll see that Pokémon augments reality about as much as stuffed animals replace real dogs. (My apologies to Bow wow and Red). Of course there’s nothing wrong with adding a little fantasy to your life, just don’t lose sight of reality.