Will Pokemon Go change the way we think about land rights?

Augmented reality raises some interesting real estate questions


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When I was younger, I always thought it would be cool to have a remote-controlled car. While flipping through the Jordan Marsh catalog, I daydreamed about how much fun it would be to spin those cars around the house or the school parking lot. Who would have imagined that later radio-controlled cars would become airborne? Those planes became helicopters and were the forefathers of today’s drones.

Now, 20 years after radio-controlled cars ended up under Christmas trees, a new “toy,” the augmented reality game Pokemon Go is capturing the minds of children (and adults) across the world. The expansion of this technology platform will change the way we think about many things, including real estate.

Since early July you would have had to have your eyes closed and your fingers in your ear not to hear the news about Pokemon Go. The game takes the player on a quest to catch a Pokemon. The players explore the world looking for these creatures hidden in bushes, in the air or near water. Throughout the quest, you can stop at “Pokestops” or “gyms.” These are places to purchase goods or train your captured Pokemon.

In Pokemon Go”, players search their own world for these creatures. Using the GPS and camera of a player’s phone, the game allows people to look through their screen at the real world and see the augmented reality of a Pokemon sitting on the street corner next to your own mailbox or find a virtual store (in the real world) at a local monument.

Outside my office is a “Pokestop,” or store. For those playing at home, it is the white pedestrian bridge over the falls, between my office and the Citizens Bank on South River Road in Bedford.

If we follow the money, there is a safe conclusion that this type of technology will be around for some time, and we should look at what this could mean for the future of the actual reality surrounding the game.

In an interview with the Financial Times, John Hanke, CEO of Niantic, the maker of the game, said that sponsored locations in the Pokemon augmented reality would provide a new revenue stream for the firm. Already, many real-life stores have benefited from being near a Pokestop or gym – some have been lucky enough to have a rare Pokemon creature hiding nearby.

Scores of people come by these real-world locations looking for augmented world treasures, but what if a retail store owner had to pay for this benefit? Downstream challenges could arise for legal constructs that would allow this to take place.

What about the other tenants in the surrounding plaza? What would they think about scores of people searching for stops near their business? What about the landlord – would there be an objection to the “sub-leasing” of their real-world location to a virtual stop or store?

Niantic created the augmented Pokemon Go locations in the public domain, staying away from people’s homes. While there has been some outcry, such as gamers trying to collect Pokemons around a somber memorial, the complaints overall have been fewer than might be expected. If Niantic, or the next augmented reality creator, decides to expand the bounds of its world to private noncommercial landowners, some other interesting questions could arise.

Aside from lease questions, there can be land rights questions.

Consider an augmented reality store in a residential neighborhood – would zoning laws stop this prospect? Land rights advocates may say that the ZBA does not extend their reach into the augmented world, but municipalities may be concerned with the ramifications of allowing such stores to operate – traffic, parking, ADA and restrooms.

Uber has changed the way we think of taxi services, and currently Airbnb and HomeAway are changing our thinking of private sharing of residential homes. It would not be too far of a reach for the augmented reality world to change our thinking of land rights as well.

Thankfully, Niantic created a game that is collaborative. Future questions may arise if the next augmented reality game dares gamers to shoot down virtual bad guys or to purchase augmented versions of real-world private property. Pokemon Go has thrust the concept of augmented reality into the minds of the public, even if we don’t yet use that phrase. It may take some time, but the ramifications of what this technology may change how we think about land rights and who controls them.

Chris Norwood is president of NAI Norwood Group, Bedford.

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