Photographer: Yuriko Nakao/Bloomberg

Long Before Pokemon Go, There Was Geocaching

An offline GPS treasure hunt that started in 2000 paved the way.

In 2000, a computer consultant named Dave Ulmer placed a five-gallon bucket in the woods near Beavercreek, Ore., leaving behind some CDs, a VHS tape, a slingshot, a Ross Perot book, a can of beans, and a logbook. He posted the coordinates online, using the global position system, and declared one rule: Take something, leave something. Sixteen years later, there would be hundreds of thousands of smartphone-wielding people hoping to find a psychic duck or anthropomorphic turtle, using virtually the same game mechanics employed in Ulmer's strange scavenger hunt.

Before the Pokemon Go craze, combing the world in search of secret stashes at specified coordinates—a pursuit called geocaching—was the domain of a quieter subculture. The hobby was made possible by President Bill Clinton. The U.S. government had purposefully limited the accuracy of GPS tracking for the general public by adding errors to the system, citing national security concerns. In May 2000, shortly before Ulmer left his stash in the woods, the White House allowed anyone access to errorless location signals.

"Waypoints of secret stashes could be shared on the internet, people could navigate to the stashes and get some stuff," Ulmer wrote at the time. "Soon we will have thousands of stashes all over the world to go searching for."

He was right. Geocaching exploded and went global. All sorts of players have joined in the game, from hardcore geocaching geeks to families looking for a reason to go hiking. Groundspeak, the group that runs Geocaching.com, says there are around 3 million active geocachers worldwide. The site estimates there are about 2.8 million caches hidden around the world, waiting to be found. The practice is mainstream enough that outdoor retailer REI has a starter guide encouraging shoppers to try it out.

In the early days, "everybody who wanted to play it had to be a little bit of a geek," said Sonny Portacio, who has been a cacher for more than a decade and runs a podcast on the subject with his wife. "You had to figure out how to use one of those dedicated GPS devices." Geocaching has since became more accessible over smartphones, and ease-of-use drew a larger audience.

Geocachers are a tight-knit community, holding events all over that hark back to the old days of social clubs and game nights. Chris Ronan, a spokesman for Geocaching.com, said there were about 8,600 geocaching events in the U.S. last year and more than 31,000 worldwide. Most are small events with a dozen or so people gathering in a park; a larger "mega-event" might draw 500 attendees or more. Giga-events, which have so far only happened in Germany, host more than 5,000.

Devoted geocachers have mixed feelings about the rise of Pokemon Go. Many are such avid gamers that they're always in search of new games, said Portacio, while purists look down at video games infringing on their territory. "You're always going to have people who are naysayers," he said. 

In any event, there's always something else that came first. Geocaching itself was born of letterboxing, a puzzle-solving hobby that goes back hundreds of years. People would set up clues that led to a box containing a notebook and a stamp.

Regardless of the haters, video games have been wandering outdoors for a while. Pokemon Go's ancestors include Plundr, a pirate game in which Wi-Fi hotspots act as contested islands for players, and its predecessor ConQwest, which had players scour cities with their phone cameras in search of optic codes. A co-creator of that game was Dennis Crowley, who went on to co-found place-finding app Foursquare a few years later. 

Then came Ingress, a game developed by Pokemon Go maker Niantec Inc., spun off from Google parent Alphabet in 2015. Ingress combines geocaching and augmented reality to create a location-based science fiction game in which two enemy factions battle to capture portals at various landmarks around the world. Players can interact with the various items, portals, and control fields on the map only by physically visiting them, phone in hand.

Pokemon Go used Ingress as its foundation, building off a data set collected over two and a half years. The data helped determine the placement of PokeStops and Pokemon Gyms that pepper the game's landscape, often in public spaces such as bars and parks.

As was inevitable, Pokemon Go has already weaved its way into the lives of some geocachers. "Anything that gets people outdoors and having adventures and exploring new places is potentially a positive thing," said Ronan. "There are people saying they've run into Pokemon players as they're out looking for geocaches."

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