A Mercer alumnus is using technology to encourage community exploration in Macon. Joey Allen, a December 2017 graduate and Macon native, is one of five people across the country recently chosen for the Niantic/Knight Fellows Program.
The six-month fellowship is a partnership between the Knight Foundation and Niantic, creator of augmented-reality (AR) games such as Pokémon Go in which users see their real-world surroundings with added virtual graphics and elements.
The fellows have been tasked with hosting three events in their communities that use AR technology to get people involved, said Allen, who holds a computer science degree and is a software engineer at the Mercer Engineering Research Center.
“I had a chance to work with some augmented reality before, and I liked the idea of technology helping humanity. So when I saw this opportunity, I figured I’d apply,” Allen said.
On Oct. 7, Allen hosted an augmented reality scavenger hunt during Open Streets Macon, when nearly 2 miles of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Cherry Street were closed to motorized traffic and opened up for play. Using the Pokémon Go app as their guide, participants found 10 physical locations downtown and answered questions at the “PokéStops.”
One stop took them to a painted piano where they had to find the piano key that didn’t play. Stops at the Tubman Museum and Douglass Theatre revealed historical facts.
About 300 people of all ages completed the scavenger hunt on that unseasonably hot fall day, Allen said. They came from all over Georgia, including Atlanta, Columbus, Augusta and Valdosta.
“I was very impressed with the enthusiasm of the community in general. I was actually shocked at how many people came out and were so excited,” Allen said.
At least a quarter of the people attending Open Streets Macon did the scavenger hunt, making it one of the top activities that day, said Rachel Hollar, executive director for Bike Walk Macon and coordinator of Open Streets Macon. The scavenger hunt attracted new audiences to the event. Some people may not have been familiar with Open Streets Macon or Bike Walk Macon, but they came out for Pokémon Go. Many teenagers attended, and that’s an audience Open Streets Macon has been trying to reach.
The goal of the scavenger hunt was to get people to downtown Macon and give them a good impression so they would want to return, Allen said. In addition, they were introduced to local businesses along the route.
Hollar said the event gave people a chance to walk around the city, and for technology to be tied into their exploration. It showed them how public streets can be used for different kinds of activities for people of all ages.
Niantic/Knight Fellow Roger Riddle, marketing and social media director for Akron Summit Visitors and Convention Bureau, lived in Macon for 17 years before moving to Ohio. He’s excited to see a young and energetic person like Allen putting forth the effort to improve Macon.
Allen said his next event will be a celebration of the arts and sciences at the Museum of Arts and Sciences in late December. He will showcase cutting-edge and interactive technologies while showing off all the great things the museum has to offer. He also hopes to be able to incorporate AR technology into the downtown Macon Christmas light display during a separate event in December. Further details on these gatherings are still being finalized.
His last event will be in support of Washington Memorial Library on Jan. 26. After the temporary shutdown of the county’s library branches in August as the Macon-Bibb County Commission worked out budgetary issues, Allen wants to show people how useful the library can be to them.
There will be a panel discussion with local artists and technology leaders on how their skills can complement one another, and librarians will discuss courses they have available to the public, such as Microsoft applications, legal research and computer programming. In addition, attendees can check out some of the other unique resources at the library, such as the 3-D printer; virtual reality headsets; and arts and crafts. People will be able to play Pokémon Go across the street at Washington Park.
“All of the (fellows) that are in other cities are doing fantastic work. It’s a great opportunity through the Knight Foundation and Niantic to draw attention to these cities,” Riddle said.
“There are plenty of reasons why you may be upset with the place you live, but there’s always someone who sees the best in it and loves it. This is a great opportunity to see the positive.”
Riddle’s first event in Akron was a tour of downtown public art, with PokéStops that gave participants information on the artists and history. His Nov. 24 event will take people on a hiking trail, and cultural sites will come to life along the way through Pokémon Go. On Dec. 1, he’ll incorporate a Pokémon Go game into a holiday party in a revitalized neighborhood.
These kinds of activities build community, change interactions and spawn friendships, Allen said. People who may never meet otherwise end up bonding over a common interest. This changes the social dynamic of a community in general and gives people more ways to learn.