Pokémon GO – The science behind it

Most of the people know about the new augmented reality game named Pokémon GO. You grep your smartphone go out-side and gonna catch ‘m all. I won’t explain what a gym is or a pokéstop are or even how to battle. Instead I purely focus on how the game technically works, I share some history behind the game. Explaining some bugs and try to predict the future. Also don’t forget to read the ‘Did you know’ section at the end.

Pokémon GO

First, a little background information for those who have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about. Pokémon GO is an Android & iOS game that allows you to catch pokémons virtually. To do so, you need to be on a physical location, the game uses GPS to know your current location. Pokémon GO is officially released in the European Union, North America, Canada, UK, Japan, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australia.

Roll-out status

Roll-out status (2016-07)

How it started

Pokémon GO actually started as a 1 April joke in 2014 created by Satoru Iwata from Nintendo and Tsunekazu Ishirhara from The Pokémon Company together with Google. They called it ‘Pokémon Challenge’. We know better now, the joke is become reality and the game is now called ‘Pokémon GO’.

Pokestops & Gyms

Before Pokémon GO was released another similar game was released for the public, called Ingress. Ingress is also an augment reality game released in 2013. Ingress was the founder of the Pokémon GO game. Ingress is in fact created by the same company as Pokémon GO; Niantic, Inc. (more about that later).
In Ingress it’s possible to create so called Portals based on geographic location together with a photo. They asked the Ingress players to submit places they think it is worth a visit. There are even Portals in Antarctica and the North Pole, and some points in between. The data of these locations together with the picture is now used in Pokémon GO, but instead calling them ‘Portals’ it is now referred as ‘Pokéstops’ and ‘Gyms’. Without Ingress, Pokémon GO couldn’t become as successful as it is now. So kudos for the Ingress community.

No, it’s not possible anymore to submit new Pokéstops or Gyms. Contact the official Twitter account instead.

Ingress screens

Ingress screens

Niantic Labs is the creator of both Ingress and Pokémon GO. Niantic Labs was founded in 2010. Niantic was an internal start-up company of Google by John Hanke, but is now independent after restructuring for Google in Alphabet (Alphabet Inc. is the parent company of Google Inc.). Ingress is played on a modified version of Google Maps. Google, Nintendo and the The Pokémon Company invested 20 million dollars in Niantic Labs.

Google Earth

John Hanke, the CEO of Niantic, and former CEO of Keyhole. A company bought by Google for $35 million to start Google Earth, and had a hand in Google Maps as well. Core features also survived in Google Maps, Google Mobile and the Keyhole Markup Language (KML).

Spawning system

The spawning system of the pokemons in Pokémon GO is still not fully open or understand. Although, it’s definitely time based and location based. Depending on the location the game knows what type of pokémon they will spawn. For example, if you are close to water, it’s very likely water pokemons will appear. Same thing with sand and grass / parks. A data map is used with the data about the environment, think about climate, vegetation and soil or rock type. The origin of this data can not be disclosed.

Nearby system

Footprint indicator

Footprint indicator

The nearby system in Pokémon GO is using your GPS location and figures out where your nearby pokemons are located. The amount of footsteps indicates the distance between you and the pokémon (too bad the ‘three footprint bug‘ doesn’t really help you now):

  • No Footstep: 0m to 40m
  • One Footstep: 40m to 75m
  • Two Footsteps: 75m to 150m
  • Three Footstep: 150m to 225m

Another bug is currently ‘ghosts’ showing up in the list, these pokemons are actually not around and they’ll never get nearer no mater how much you move around. Be aware of that. Myths are saying that more rare pokemons appear at a busy places (more people), with more pokestops / gyms together with lures.

GPS receiver

Besides the built-in GPS module in your phone, you may want a separate GPS receiver for different reasons. Some mobile phones gives inaccurate GPS location depending of the phone brand / type, location, satellite locations or even the weather can effect the GPS accuracy. Three satellites are enough to further narrow the location down to two points (in yellow). In practice, a fourth measurement is needed to correct for clock error.

Two measurements narrow down our position to 2 points

Three measurements narrow down our position to 2 points

When your phone consist of a cheap GPS module, you could consider to buy a Bluetooth GPS Receiver that works with Android/iOS. Although I hear the game can’t handle the Bluetooth GPS receiver too bad. Because Pokemon GO may block Bluetooth GPS Receivers, because they think you are hacking. In fact, there are a lot of GPS fakers released for Pokémon GO.
Besides a Bluetooth GPS Receiver you can just hold in your hand/pocket, there are other fancy products in the making; like the Pokedrone. A small drone which can be used to catch pokemons on water for instance (the product itself is not yet released).

I think Pokemon GO should also use other sensors like magnetometer, accelerometer or gyroscope (gyroscope is already used when you rotate your screen). This makes it harder for cheater to cheat, although the Pokédrone may not work anymore.

Bugs (not Caterpie)

Due to the instabilities of the App performance and draining your mobile battery very fast. Niantic is very busy working on improving their servers (stability & 3 footstep bug) and the App itself. The latest update shows clearly the focus with the ‘What’s new?’ description which says: “Minor text fixes.” -,-. I’m not lying, check it out yourself. I know most of the issues can be solved server-side, still the app has a lot of issues/crashes. Better redesign and less battery usage of the Pokemon GO App will be really appreciated.

In the mean-while you can limit your battery usage by dimming the screen, enabling the battery saving feature within the Pokemon GO app (although not very affective), disable the camera (VR option), disable WiFi/Bluetooth, disable active background apps, and use an extra powerbank. Or you could buy the Pokémon GO Plus arm bracelet (or buy it here).

What’s the impact?

  • There are already a lot of events created for Pokemon GO, you could visit the Amersfoort Zoo (Holland) for FREE to catch them all. For big parks (read: Efteling, Walibi etc.) people created Pokemon GO maps for it. And an open-source map is created called PoGoMap. Finally a lot of mobile apps are also created to support the Pokemon GO game, like Poke Radar and PokeVision. Facebook events appears to pop-up in Amsterdam and other places.
  • A special mobile data bundle is created called Robin GO. For € 24,95 per month you get unlimited MBs, SMS and voice minutes with a data speed of 1,1Mbps (enough to play the game). I would not advise this mobile plan, the provider is not that great.
  • People buy items with real money in the shop, like lures. Especially business owners setup such lures to attract people to their location. In the hope that the players purchase drinks/food. 
  • Nintendo Inc. stock price went sky-high after the launch of the game. After a statement that the company (Nintendo) only owns 32% of Pokemon GO (together with Niantic), and mainly benefits for the side effects of the hype. The company doesn’t change the financial forecast due to uncertainty and the financial construction, causing the stock price to drop again. From 272,75 Euros (31 770 Japanese yen) to 199,34 Euros (23 220,00 yen) on the Japanese stock market.
  • Special open-source cases are created to play Pokemon GO (see image below).
3D printed case

3D printed aimer case


Pokemon GO and Ingress will certainly not be the last augmented reality game that is released for the mobile phone. Will the next game be GTA on your navigation system? Who knows… What I  think is that VR devices can become a next big thing.
Google created a Virtual Reality platform called Daydream. This can become a good starting point for future projects and games. At some point a VR goggles could be become a feature of a smartphone (just like a camera), meaning a second device is not needed anymore in order to experience the full virtual world (I know we have already Google Cardboard). Currently our mobiles doesn’t have good specifications to get the most out of VR (look at the Cardboard project). By partnering with manufactures to build Android phones to a common baseline that can support high-fidelity VR, Google was able to design a minimal headset that could be the standard to deliver high quality VR, without all the cords or a PC.
Daydream will also solve the controlling VR experience. Where there is no industry standard right now; Cardboard had only a single button, while HTC Vive has a pair of motion controllers. Daydream will have a small remote controller which has a thumb track-pad and two buttons.

Google Daydream design

Google Daydream design

Did you know, that…

  • the max user level is 40?
  • you need to have 20.000.000 XP to reach the max level (40)?
  • you can trade pokémons in the near-future?
  • more pokémons will be added of the newer generations? Currently only the 1st generation is added in the game (150 in total).
  • Pokéstops could become Pokécenters? Objects like ‘Lure’ in order to change the Pokéstops will be extended. In case of a Pokécenter, the pokémons can be cured.
  • they will create new ways of training the pokémons (besides gyms)?
  • breeding pokemons yourself can become a future feature as well? You could combine two characteristics of different spices into a new pokémon.
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