It’s like Pokemon Go, except you save the planet instead

This app gives shoppers a way to compare the carbon footprint of common retail goods.

A screenshot from Steven Isley's app.
A screenshot from Steven Isley’s app.

What if you looked at the world through your phone, and instead of seeing Charmander or Squirtle, you saw the carbon footprint of a bottle of water you were thinking about buying?

Steve Isley, a behavioral scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, has developed an augmented reality app that could help consumers make better choices for the planet.

Along with a team of scientists, an intern and a research fellow, Isley developed the app to give shoppers a way to compare the carbon footprint of common retail goods. The ultimate goal: to gauge whether prominently displayed environmental information swayed shoppers toward making greener decisions.

The team had been brainstorming ways to draw attention to the carbon footprint of common household items. Isley said they considered “ecolabels,” stickers that could be applied to products. The sticker would detail how good or bad the item was for the environment based on carbon consumption measured in miles driven. But grocery store items are already covered in labels — organic, natural, fat-free — and it would be too difficult to get consumers to care.

“Stickers on a box are too one-size-fits-all,” Isley said. “The information overload already makes it hard to make a choice.”

Then the team thought of augmented reality — a responsive and game-like method for merging user preferences with product information.

The team tested an augmented reality shopping app on more than 120 volunteers of all ages at an unnamed Golden grocery store in October. They offered $20 to participants to shop for water and cereal. The participants were then required to purchase the goods they chose.

Isley devised a way to give about 4o brands of cereal a letter grade based on user preferences. In a survey, participants ranked qualities of cereal in order of importance. Protein content, fiber content, corn or wheat content, caloric content and carbon footprint were just some of the qualities listed. Isley emphasized that although many people did value nutrition, about 5 percent put sugary cereal as a top priority. Therefore, for those participants, sugary cereals would get an “A.”

Since the goal of the study was to gauge awareness of carbon footprint as a factor in consumer choice, no matter the letter grade of the product, eco-friendly cereals or water bottles were highlighted in green.

Shopping for water involves considerably fewer choices, so the product was used as a control to see whether carbon footprint would actually sway a user’s decision, when flavor and brand-loyalty were not factors.

And it worked. Sort of.

The experiment found that compared to a control group shopping in regular reality, the group shopping in augmented reality bought water with a 25 percent smaller carbon footprint. With cereal, however, the reduction was not statistically significant. Brand loyalty, nutritional content and other factors outweighed carbon footprint.

They did find that the vast majority of users enjoyed the app and felt comfortable using it in public and that they made considerably healthier choices on cereal when shopping with the app, suggesting it could be used for more than just saving the environment.

Augmented reality is not new.

It’s just become a lot more popular recently.

“Father of computer graphics” Ivan Sutherland’s 1986 Sword of Damocles game is regarded as the first recorded use of both virtual and augmented reality, according to

There was limited development in the field until the ‘90s when the Air Force and the NFL adopted it. Only since 2013 has the technology become advanced and affordable enough to take steps toward consumer audiences. Virtual and augmented reality technology attracted $1.1 billion in investment in 2016 and is often considered the future of computing.

As for Pokemon Go? Isley doesn’t think the app will change the world’s energy consumption, but it does go a long way to normalize augmented reality for the greater public.

“It has really highlighted the attractiveness of augmented reality,” Isley said.

Isley’s app still faces challenges before the team could ever consider releasing their product to the public. There is currently no comprehensive database with product-specific information, and Isley says carbon information is labor-intensive and costly to calculate.

At the moment, Isley’s study is under review, but the team is looking for other opportunities to expand on their findings. One way would be partnering up with companies interested in using their technology to enhance nutrition, water conservation or other methods of enhancing social good.

To Isley’s knowledge, his team is the only one working with augmented reality and consumer choice.

Oh, and if you are looking for the post-apocalyptic version of the world where augmented reality becomes the norm and information overload is a million times more aggressive than your usual shopping trip, check out this video by Keiichi Matsuda.

Multimedia business & healthcare reporter Chloe Aiello can be reached via email at or

Subscribe to Denverite’s newsletter here.