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The AR that ate Disney World 

For years, I had a deep skepticism of Augmented Reality (AR). While I could see the revolutionary potential of AR in the distant future, when devices like Google Glass, Apple Glasses or Mojo Lens would become ubiquitous and mainstream, the present state of AR seems riddled with poor UX and gimmicks. Whether it is an unnecessary layer of confusion to a product, like a billboard that requires you to download an app or AR-animated children’s books (as a parent, limiting screen time is hard enough as it is) these explorations didn’t inspire confidence. It wasn’t until this year that I really understood the potential of the technology. The realization came about thanks to my son, a popular app, and that all-too-common boredom that takes over when you’re waiting in line at pre-COVID Disney World.

Back in early 2020, a month before COVID would shudder the parks, I took my son to Disney World for the first time. As the two of us stood in line at Haunted Mansion, me trying to introduce my son to the Happiest Place on Earth and him getting increasingly restless, I finally gave up my phone and let him play a game: Pokémon GO. Pokémon GO is a massive AR scavenger hunt game that allows players to compete and collect location specific Pokémon. Here we are in the heart of the Disney empire, and to my surprise it had been fully and aggressively populated with Pokémon GO PokeStops and “gyms.”

Even in the very heart of Disney’s Magic Kingdom, Pokémon had staked its claim. There stands a statue of Walt Disney holding hands with Mickey, Cinderla’s castle towering in the background. To say it’s a popular place to take a family picture or a selfie, would be a massive understatement. It’s also a PokeStop. While tourists queued to take pictures my son eagerly challenged other Pokémon trainers and collected rare Pokémon. He was ecstatic by what he was seeing and it seemed to have much more to do with Pokémon brand IP than the famed IP of Disney Corporation.

Pokémon, which I promise is not a Disney brand, had mapped their location-based AR game on top of Disney’s entire theme park. While the park has physical fences to keep unwanted visitors out, they have not found a way to digitally geo-fence a place to restrict AR interactions. Niantic, the game developer, does allow a property to request to have their locations removed from the game, but it’s up to Niantic to comply or not. Disney, famously protective of their brand and careful about the visitor experience at their parks, can’t be happy about this.

What is AR, when used right? It is one world used as the substrate to view other worlds. Just as my son experienced Disney’s theme park through Pokémon’s AR filters, the best AR puts new lenses on the world around us, adding new interpretations. The Urban Archive app sends New Yorkers push notifications when they are near the sites of historic photos from the NYPL’s archives. The Slavery at Monticello app features location-specific content that adds to the experience of exploring Thomas Jefferson’s home. NO AD took an almost adversarial approach, using AR to replace billboards with art for an experiment in real-life ad blocking. These applications of AR rewrite the world around us, without boundaries or restrictions.

Above: The Urban Archive App allows users to explore New York City’s evolution through geo-tagged historical documents, like this 1907 photo of the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch in Brooklyn.

As brands and cultural institutions consider how they can remain relevant while staying closed, or how they can reinvent their visitor experience for a world without docent-led tours, they should consider adding a new lens to their spaces, or to the world. What would curators at The Met have to say about MoMA’s collection in an AR-powered tour? What would Nike want to layer onto the experience of users who step into not just a Nike store, but also a public stadium, your morning run, or the neighborhood park.

Activists and governments working to remove, contextualize, and remake public monuments might also borrow from Pokémon GO’s example. With hundreds of confederate monuments still up across the country, each one is a potential AR trigger. Imagine an AR app that digitally replaces each of those monuments with another statue, or adds missing context about the people depicted. In my own city of Philadelphia, we only have two monuments to women in the entire city. Solving that disparity will take a generation, and in the meantime AR could memorialize and tell the stories of the women who should be commemorated with permanent monuments. Not a fan of Trump’s proposal for a collection of “American Hero” monuments because you’re concerned that a monument to Billy Graham will probably gloss over his decades of homophobia? An unauthorized AR app would layer alternative interpretations into the park. Like Pokémon GO at Disney World, none of this requires government approval or cooperation from property owners.

Above: Snap’s Landmark lenses turn iconic buildings into triggers for AR experiences.

The full power of AR will come when users can create and contribute their own content and worlds. We aren’t fully there yet but already these tools are slipping into wider use. Tools like 8th Wall, Facebook’s Spark AR, or Snap’s Lens Studio are putting the tools to create AR in the hands of everyday users. Even the maps used in Pokémon GO are partially user-generated. It’s only a matter of time when your parents are populating the Metaverse

I look forward to a not too distant future where everyone has the opportunity (at least digitally) to design the world around them, where access to a range of AR tools will allow us so many new ways of seeing.

About the author – Josh Goldblum

Josh Goldblum is the founding principal of Emmy Award-winning interactive design studio Bluecadet Interactive. His core competencies include user experience design, information architecture, web development and transmedia storytelling and strategy. He has travelled widely as an interactive journalist, producer and strategist and has spoken at numerous nationally regarded conferences. His work has been profiled by HOW Magazine, Communications Arts, Adobe, The New Yorker, USA Today, People Magazine, CNN, NPR’s Morning Edition, and CBS News. He has won several prestigious awards including an Emmy, a Webby, a SXSW Award and two MUSE awards.

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