Friday, July 15, 2016

What Pokémon Go Means for Health Care

Just what the world needs: another article on Pokémon Go.  And one that tries to relate it to health care, no less!

In recent days there have been a flood of stories trying to explain the Pokémon Go craze.  And it is a craze, a bona fide hit.  Just a few days after it was released as a free mobile download in the U.S., it is the biggest game ever here, with more daily users than Twitter and with users spending more time engaged with it than Facebook, reports TechCrunch.  Pretty impressive for what is basically a mobile take on an old video game (The New York Times calls it "Millennials' first nostalgia blast").

For those of you who have not yet succumbed to the mania, here's a quick recap of the game:
  • It uses your smartphone's camera and GPS system to overlay fictional features onto the real world, so that you "see" both at the same time.
  • Pokémon is the name of the fictional species that are the point of the game.
  • Players can grow a Pokémon by obtaining an egg, which require walking to incubate and hatch, or they may capture one by hitting them with a  Poké ball (also launched from your phone). 
  • Players can obtain more Poké balls, and other free goodies, at PokéStops that are also shown on the map.  These are usually real world historic or landmark sites, and end up being social hotspots for players, especially if the PokéStop has been marked by a Lure module to attract Pokémon.
  • Players can also meet up with other users in "gyms" to battle other Pokémon players.

Many -- e.g., The New York Times and Fast Company -- believe that Pokémon Go is finally going to make augmented reality mainstream, as well as showing AR's advantages over virtual reality, since the latter typically requires at least a headset plus a high powered PC.  It makes AR quick, easy, and free, teaching players how AR can seamlessly fit into the real world.

The game has players wandering around their neighborhoods, their eyes torn between their phones and the real world, visiting places they never stopped at before and meeting people they might never have talked to before.  Sometimes this had led to unintended consequences, even injuries.  There are reports of people trying to play while driving, falling into ditches, walking into traffic, even finding a (real) dead body.

Of course, all those are things that people might have done while texting or checking Facebook on their phone.

The Pokémon Go craze has sent Nintendo's shares skyrocketing, boosting its market cap by some $9b.  Nintendo's future isn't set as a result of the game, though.  They still have to figure out how to maintain the phenomena, as well as how to monetize it (e.g., charging retail locations a fee to be a PokéStop.).

People are already talking up the game's health benefits.  The New York Times reports that it "has kids on the move."  MobiHealthNews calls it the "fastest growing unintentional health app," noting the walking required to incubate eggs or to visit PokéStops.  More importantly, when people are playing the game they are not sitting passively behind a screen in their house.  They are outside, moving around, and often interacting in-person with other players.

Pokémon Go is not, by itself, going to lead to dramatic improvements in the nation's health.  Nor was it intended to.  It is, however, yet another example about we can use games, or at least gamification, can help us with our health (see Health Care Is Better as a Game).  We tend to treat our health as serious business, and it is, but that doesn't mean we always take it very seriously, not as judged by our health habits.  It seems ironic that one of the best ways to improve those habits may well prove to be to play games.

However promising gamification in health care may be, it is the AR that may well hold the most promise for health care.  Google was not wrong to pursue Google Glass, just premature.  Pokémon Go may be signaling that we're now finally ready for AR, and that it will be consumers as well as professionals who can benefit from it.

The potential uses in health care are virtually endless, but here are a few examples:

  • Ever been lost in a hospital, meandering haphazardly despite various signs and color-coded arrows?  How much better would an AR map be?  It could constantly point the way, redirecting if any wrong turns are made, and even offer helpful interpretations to the medical jargon passed along the way.
  • Ever feel like your doctor spends too much time staring at your chart or a screen?  Instead of looking there for information about you, how much better would it be if he/she was looking at you, with AR notations for key information about you?  And there's no reason why we shouldn't be able to see those displays as well.
  • Ever not understand what your doctor is telling you about your diagnosis or treatment?  It is well documented how few patients leave their doctors office/ER/hospital understanding what they were told.  How much better it would be if your phone could listen to the conversation, and provide AR "translations" into layman's terms of what is being said?  
  • Ever been told you needed a prescription, a test, or other treatment, and wondered how much it might cost?  You might have even asked your doctor, who most likely doesn't know either.  How much more powerful transparency efforts would be if those prices showed up as AR in the place of service at the time of the discussion about them, again with both the patient and the doctor seeing them?
  • Ever make "bad" food choices, despite calorie and nutritional information more omnipresent on labels and menus?  How much better would an interactive AR display of the information be?
Health care has no shortage of information.  Its problem is more making that information accessible to the right people, at the right time.  This is the real potential of AR, and figuring out how to do so in as impactful yet unobtrusive way will be the challenge for developers.   

Pokémon Go is not the model for the future of health care, but it offers a model for it we should be paying attention to.


  1. I agree with your views. AR represents one of the most promising ways of making healthcare context-sensitive (to use the term loosely). In my mind that's a quality it always lacked because of the asynchronous nature of our interactions with multiple points of care. Would love to see this 'evolve' into a new model for interaction (sorry I couldn't resist)!

  2. Proof of Concept as build earlier this year, using AR to connect medical devices, LMS and learning content: