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Pokemon and the rest of us

On the one hand, it’s good to see that the Yukon’s digital infrastructure is good enough that Yukoners can go as bonkers over Pikachu and Charmander as the rest of the planet.

It’s hard to know what to make of the Pokemon craze.

On the one hand, it’s good to see that the Yukon’s digital infrastructure is good enough that Yukoners can go as bonkers over Pikachu and Charmander as the rest of the planet.

I just wonder what will happen next time Northwestel’s fibre optic cable breaks. Will the Pokemon critters be safe to run all over town, like red squirrels during a .22 ammo shortage?

Yukoners get upset at the phone company when the internet goes down and cuts them off from their bank accounts. Just think how mad people will be if a Fort Nelson backhoe foils their attempt to catch the elusive Mewtwo.

Some techno-pundits are saying that Pokemon Go presages the arrival of the age of augmented reality. Pretty soon, you may be able to watch the world through your smartphone or digital eyeglasses and do all kinds of things.

Lots of different kinds of games will be possible. Live action role players will be able to “LARP” through the forest with their goggles chasing dragons. Think of all the treasure hunts and quest games that will be possible.

Google already has a translation app that shows English words when you point your phone at a foreign menu or street sign. Owner’s manuals and how to guides will be revolutionized.

Marketing departments will concoct a million schemes. Things like the Yukon Gold explorer’s passport, which lets tourists get stamps at locations around the Yukon, will be replaced by smartphone apps. You’ll just have to hold your phone up to a museum artefact to get the full story. Clothing firms will let you try on different outfits virtually. Paint companies will show you what your living room looks like in chartreuse or ochre. Gyms will show you thinner and with great abs. You’ll be able to find sushi restaurants in a strange city as easily as Pokemon Go players find Pokestops on their 3D maps.

Some of these applications exist today, but the smartphone could help make them mainstream.

However, it is not a sure thing that augmented reality will take over our lives. Lots of other futuristic technologies have made a big splash, only to end up affecting a small part of the world or not happening at all. Think about the hype a few years ago about 3D printing. It has transformed some industries such as medical devices, but has hardly gone mainstream. Heads-up displays are used by fighter pilots, but Google’s Glass-branded digital imaging eyeglasses for the masses have been discontinued. Some Jetsons-era concepts like flying cars and robo-maids remain science fiction.

One thing that’s for sure is that managing retail businesses in the Yukon just got more complicated. Ditto for things like our territorial tourism advertising campaign.

Digital marketing has been eating away at traditional television ads and print media for years. Pokemon Go accelerates this. Instead of watching expensive TV ads, people of all ages are spending more time on their smartphones. You can plough more money into Facebook, Google and other digital ad platforms, but there are big questions about effectiveness and, on some platforms, fraud. Now you have to decide if it’s worth spending money to rent a Pokemon lure (yes, they exist) for your business.

Some savvy and agile entrepreneurs have nicely boosted profits by quickly learning how Pokemon Go works. Inc. Magazine published a handy how-to guide on renting lures, capitalizing if you’re close to a Pokemon gym, or running Pokemon catching contests on social media to lure millennials to your business.

Running a business was hard enough. Now you have to watch out for the next digital craze, or you’ll end up wondering why all your customers are running away while looking at their smartphones. Some Yukon restaurants, for example, still aren’t on Yelp! or Trip Advisor. Now there’s something else they’re missing.

The trend potentially hurts small businesses and smaller jurisdictions like the Yukon. The big chains have the digital marketing budgets to partner with future Pokemon-style games. The local pizzeria or cafe in Whitehorse does not. And how, for example, does the Department of Tourism find out who is building global travel games to lure tourists to Las Vegas casinos, and convince them to add Diamond Tooth Gertie’s to the list?

Augmented reality isn’t going away. Even if you think it is weird or disturbing, you’ll have to get used to it. The good news is that it also creates opportunities.

I hope someone in the tourism industry is Skyping Ottawa right now with the idea to build a Canada 150 augmented reality game for the nation’s big birthday next year. We have never succeeded in convincing our fellow citizens that it is every Canadian’s patriotic duty to visit the Yukon and spend a few bucks. But perhaps we can lure them by offering them points, garish digital patriotic animals and social-media bragging rights.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He won last year’s Ma Murray award for best columnist.