The recent release and quick popularity of Pokemon Go has received much attention in the last week. In simplest terms, it is a smartphone app and game that requires users to travel around their physical environment and pick up / collect various characters. The app features augmented reality as shown in the screenshots below. To see and capture these various characters, the app superimposes these targets on video from the smartphone. Various social media sources and popular press articles have been quick to point out the potential mental health benefits of Pokemon Go. But what do we actually know about Pokemon Go and mental health?
The simple answer is very little. This is a new app that people are only just using. While there is already anecdotal evidence that the app is helping some people be more active and even feel better, we do not yet know more. However, the app is interesting as it demonstrates how willing and excited people are to use an augmented reality app. There are already many augmented reality apps available to download from the commercial apps stores, many seeming to feature spiders (see figure below). The benefits of augmented reality apps like this for exposure therapies are broad and research in this area is not new: a 2005 paper discusses using augmented reality to help with cockroach phobia. While virtual reality has to date received more attention and been the subject of numerous research endeavorers, especially for PTSD, it requires additional hardware beyond the phone: namely glasses or googles. Augmented reality requires nothing beyond the phone and thus is ready to scale to a population level - today - as Pokemon Go has demonstrated. But Pokemon Go has also highlighted another potential area of interest to mental health and health in general.
By virtue of having users travel to real locations to collect characters, Pokemon Go forces users to leave their homes, be active, and move. Physical activity remains a first line recommendation for many, although not all, mental illnesses with broad benefits for many patients. Therapies such as behavioral activation have been proven effective and in part seek to help people engage more with their environment (although there is more to behavioral activation than simply being active). Having people be more active and moving brings both physical and mental health benefits.
Thus observing how Pokemon Go is using augmented reality to make people more active is interesting and holds unique potential for health in general, not just mental health alone. But there are also risks to consider and much we simply do not know. Do apps like Pokemon Go cause people to over exert themselves or place themselves in dangerous situations? Does it lead to patterns of regular exercise in the long term or just a one time burst? Are there certain people it may be harmful for? Early privacy concerns have already been raised and are not yet fully settled. So do apps like Pokemon Go have any mental health benefits? It is too early to tell, but certainly the use of augmented reality and its uptake on a population level is noteworthy.