UT Alumnus Helps Locals Explore Austin With Pokemon Go

Amanda Eakin

For the past two weeks, UT alumnus and Niantic CEO John Hanke has had millions of people hunting monsters around the world. 

Niantic’s Pokemon Go, which is top-grossing on both the Apple and Android app stores, involves “catching”  Pokemon in augmented reality. The game also has a social aspect that allows players to move around the city and interact with other users.

Hanke said Pokemon Go was created to help people explore their surroundings. 

“Our main goal is to give people a nudge to go outside and explore their neighborhood or a new part of town,” Hanke said. “It’s a big world and there is a lot to see. Sometimes it’s right under our noses and we are too busy to stop and look.” 

 Coming from a small town of 1,000 people in Central Texas, Hanke wanted to become more well-rounded after high school. Though he was interested in math and programming, Hanke majored in Plan II and graduated from UT in 1989. He said that the abundance of literature, philosophy and history classes he took through Plan II opened the world up to him. 

In creating Pokemon Go, Hanke said he hoped to broaden the horizons of the players by incorporating his interests in outdoor recreation and software into augmented reality.

Because of the app’s unexpected burst of popularity, Austin was missing “pokestops” where virtual items could be collected for inventory in culturally significant areas of town. Even though the app has been glitchy, nearly a dozen players traveled to the State Capitol last Sunday night to catch Pokemon. 

Several players said they liked how the app’s map feature forced users to exercise more while Pokemon hunting. Though Capitol policemen applauded this healthy side effect, they warned that players should be aware of their surroundings, especially considering personal safety concerns following the death of Haruka Weiser. 

“Players should make sure they have enough battery life to last through the night, as well as appropriate footwear and buddies,” a Capitol police officer said. “There is strength in numbers. It’s all about planning.” 

Since downloading the app, Tara Etienne and Sam Collins, two local gamers, said they have met around 30 people while playing the game. Etienne said that the app has led her to a variety of places around Austin. 

“I went to a church the other day, which I would never usually go to,” Etienne said. 

Will Rowland, a visitor from Arizona, played the app throughout his road trip across the US, including Austin and the State Capitol. He said he was skeptical about the extent to which Pokemon Go helped him explore Austin. 

“We walked around the Capitol grounds, but we were just looking for Pokemon,” Rowland said. “Are you really experiencing the area or are you just playing a video game?”

For gamers like Rowland, the app is more of a quest for nostalgia. 

“As a ’90s kid, I had a fantasy about going into the wild and catching this animal that would become my battle partner,” Rowland said. 

Rowland’s childhood fantasy is now almost tangible. Using the smartphone’s motion sensor, and camera, players can view Pokemon on their screens as if the creatures were present in real life. Pokemon appear in relevant habitats; water creatures like fish can be caught in the UT Turtle Pond.

“I found a Pokemon bug at the restaurant where I work,” Collins said, “and that’s against health code so I captured it right away.” 

More features are now available in Austin after initial glitches were fixed earlier this week. Pokestops are scattered around the city and on UT campus landmarks such as the Tower Garden Memorial and the pipe fountains in the Welch Hall Plaza. A “gym” where players can battle each other is positioned near the tower. 

At midnight on Wednesday, nearly 50 players gathered by the turtle pond for a “lure party” to catch Pokemon that were attracted to a lure module set by one gamer. These connections are the reason Hanke became interested in AR. Through Pokemon Go, Hanke said he’s been able to share the city of Austin with visitors, his alma mater and other locals in a new way.

“Augmented reality holds the promise of enhancing the things that are most core to our experience as human beings — our interactions with the world around us and with others,” Hanke said.