Navigant Research Blog

It Takes a Lot of Energy to Catch ‘Em All

Anne Wrobetz — July 29, 2016

Cloud ComputingPokémon GO has taken over the world. For those who have not yet played the game, it’s an augmented reality smartphone app where players walk around collecting Pokémon, battling in gyms, and generally having a good time. It’s also on the forefront of technological innovation, combining mapping data from Google with a narrative from the longstanding franchise. Niantic Labs, the developers of the game, have risen to the forefront of the technology world. Nintendo, one owner of the Pokémon franchise, became the most traded company by value of shares swapped on the Tokyo stock market this century. However, shortly after this rise, the stocks plummeted. Nintendo is not, after all, directly responsible for the development of the popular game and only owns a 32% stake in The Pokémon Company.

However, there is, as they say, a Butterfree in the ointment. The immense popularity of Pokémon GO has caused overrun servers and overheating data centers, making the free app crash every few hours. In addition, players are expressing frustration with the app’s  intense battery draining ability. A typical smartphone battery can drain in as few as 40 minutes of gameplay. The game is based entirely around GPS capabilities, which are notorious battery hogs. While GPS is running, a mobile device cannot enter a sleep state. In addition, communications channels with GPS satellites are very slow, and mapping software is processor-intensive, further compounding the energy intensity of such applications.

The intense data and energy use of the game has caused Werner Vogels, CTO of Amazon, to offer Niantic assistance in operating its servers. This intense usage of GPS capabilities, smartphone data, and server capacity promises to bring Pokémon GO to the top spot in smartphone application energy usage. According to SimilarWeb, in its first 4 days of use, the number of Pokemon GO users nearly surpassed Twitter users in the United States.

 Daily Active Users: Pokémon GO vs. Twitter

PokemonBlog

 (Source: SimilarWeb)

In terms of average time users spend using the app, Pokémon GO has surpassed social media sites WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook Messenger. The average player uses the app for 43 minutes a day. What’s more, Niantic plans to launch the app in over 200 countries as soon as servers are bolstered. With the current bulk of Pokémon trainers in the United States, a global phenomenon could have a large carbon footprint.

Pikachu-Powered Data Centers?

There’s little information available on the data centers that Niantic is using for the app, but the company is presumably using Google cloud data centers or something similar. Niantic was a part of Google until April 2015, when the two split. Google has always been known for its environmental stewardship in big data. The company’s data centers are reported to use 50% less energy than most in the industry, and it uses renewable energy to power over 35% of its operations. So while no data is available on Niantic’s end, it can be assumed that the company is using industry best practices in its data centers.

Niantic has not released any sort of impact statement on the app’s actual energy use, though it is almost certainly astronomical. Niantic is already hard at work developing improvements to the game, such as limiting the amount of personal data the app could access. The energy use could be measured to assess the app for potential energy improvements. A new tool called EnergyBox, developed by Ekhiotz Jon Vergara from Swedish Linkoping University, measures the energy consumption of mobile devices due to data communication. This tool finds that the way apps are designed helps to curb the energy used to send and receive large amounts of data. Niantic should take note of its app’s energy consumption before rolling it out globally, lest we be trapped in a Diglett-infested desert due to GO-related global warming.

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