Something interesting has happened in the gaming world over the past week, and I’m starting to think the repercussions could spread pretty quickly. An old game has been presented in a new way, melding silly cute imaginary creatures with Google Maps, GPS, and lots of mobile bandwidth. I’m speaking of course about Pokemon Go, which is sweeping far more quickly through the airwaves than people think.
I went for a walk last night around my neighborhood. It’s usually pretty sleepy like suburbs are these days, but this time it was crawling with people walking or in some cases driving around with their phones alight, practically tripping over things in the twilight as they tracked pokemon by GPS, swearing occasionally at the unstable data connections they were getting. At the edge of the neighborhood there is a water tower, and beneath it was a gang of teenagers — pale, skinny nerds, to be exact. They had set off a ‘lure’ to draw pokemons to them so they could catch and collect them. They didn’t pick the water tower by accident. Every mobile operator in the area is right there of course, 10 stories up, and they knew it.
I also keep tabs on the highly bandwidth-sensitive gaming community. I used to be one of them long ago — still am in emeritus fashion perhaps. I’m in a few chatrooms for other games, but over the weekend every single one dropped the usual conversation about the game the room was for, and they started talking pokemon and sharing images of their catches. These aren’t kids either, but the folks in their 20s, 30s, and 40s who actually spend real money on mobile games. They were off the couch too, and of course already figuring out how to game the system.
Now what does this all have to do with infrastructure? Pokemon Go itself doesn’t use all that much bandwidth — it’s not video after all. Nintendo is straining to keep their servers running under the wave of people signing up and getting hooked, but that’s just a scaling issue we’ve seen before with any app that catches on more quickly than expected. But it’s not just another Angry Birds, there’s something fundamentally new about the way people are interacting with their mobile data.
What I’m wondering about is the shift in bandwidth consumption in geographic terms. All those people in my neighborhood left their home WiFi networks to hunt through the streets for these virtual creatures. If it continues, the profile of where a rapidly growing portion of highly connected people consume their bandwidth stands to change rapidly. They weren’t just hunting pokemon, they were streaming music and video and sharing the excitement of their hunts while doing it — at least my younger daughter was as she busted through her monthly LTE bandwidth cap in 5 days.
And it’s not just Pokemon Go that I have on my mind. This is the first game that really takes a virtual reality, maps it to the physical world, and makes it visible there through existing technology in a fun way. But it won’t be the last — I’m sure within a day of this release, light bulbs went off all over Silicon Valley. It doesn’t take much to imagine virtual reality googles for hunting virtual things in the real world. And it doesn’t take much more to imagine the next game that puts other, more complex virtual characters or items visually in the real world through the same technology. A first-person shooter game built off the same type of infrastructure is probably on three dozen drawing boards already. And it takes very little more imagination than that to see such a game incorporate streaming video or something else with real bandwidth-chewing power into the picture.
I’ve asked various people in the industry what the next big thing to worry about is after video, and the answer has frequently been virtual reality. But I frankly have had a very hard time envisioning just how that would manifest itself. Not anymore though, I can see it now. Small cells and C-RAN had better hurry.
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