The Augmented Reality that ate Disney World

Josh Goldblum
Original paper on MuseumNext >

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.

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