Augmenting Reality: The Phenomenon of Pokémon Go & What it Means for AR and VR
If you haven’t heard of Pokemon then you must have been living at the back of the deepest, darkest cave inside the most isolated jungle on planet Earth. Even if you haven’t personally played any of the games or watched any of the movies, I’m sure you know of someone who has: it’s one of the biggest multimedia franchises of all time.
Pokemon took a fairly simple premise - collecting cute little monsters and battling to be the best of the best - and transformed it into a pop-culture juggernaut that transcends the gaming confines of its origins. There have been 122 game titles for handheld and console platforms (so far…!) which have sold 279 million units in territories around the world; supplemented by 19 seasons of anime; 19 feature length movies; 42 series of manga; 7 generations of trading cards and an unholy amount of obnoxiously brightly coloured merchandise.
The long and short of it is that Pokemon has long encouraged enthusiastic fan engagement, which is one of the reasons why Pokemon Go has enjoyed such explosive success - more on that later!
History of AR
AR has been floating on the edges of the public consciousness for years now; it was mostly confined to underwhelming iPad apps and unwanted add-ons to camera software on smartphones. Basically, no one cared and no one paid attention beyond opening the app once, going “...huh.” and closing it again.
It may seem hard to believe, but head mounted displays date all the way back to 1968 when Ivan Sutherland managed to invent a headset that was so heavy it had to be suspended from the ceiling like some kind of horrific torture device. The graphical capability also (unsurprisingly) left a lot to be desired - well, it was the late 60’s! - and ultimately the technology had very little impact outside of some pretty niche tech circles. The term ‘AR’ wasn’t even coined until 1990 when Boeing researcher Tom Caudell use it to describe a digital display used by aircraft electricians that blended virtual graphics onto a physical reality, and it took until 2009 for AR to start gaining attention outside of military and scientific research groups.
Now we have a handle on the hardware required to produce high-end AR and VR experiences, the timeline is going to speed up exponentially: we’ve already seen Google launch (and later discontinue) their Google Glass platform, as well as invest millions of dollars in secretive start-up Magic Leap, a company that’s somehow managed to gain over a billion dollars of funding without announcing a single product. With apps like Pokemon Go bringing AR firmly into the public consciousness and ‘Mixed Reality’ headsets like Microsoft’s ‘Hololens’ already being released to developers, AR and MR will undoubtedly continue to develop into commercially viable mediums.
VR & AR hype
Now that headsets of all types are commercially available, there’s been an undeniably huge surge in interest in Virtual Reality technologies. It seems like everyone wants to capitalise on the hype and build a VR app, regardless of whether or not they have a good idea to start with.
Pokemon Go itself has helped to contribute to this hype. Within the first few days of it being released in America there were dozens of frantic headlines about it being ‘more popular than Tinder/Twitter/Facebook/Netflix’, news of how it was taking daily active users away from some of the most popular mobile apps to the tune of 20 million a day in the US alone, and statistics suggesting it’s been installed on at least 10.81% of all Android devices. With over 75 million total downloads and over $35million generated so far, the hype surrounding Pokemon Go cannot be understated.
Businesses are already beginning to capitalise on this momentum; bars, restaurants and pubs that are lucky enough to have Pokestops close by are using the game to increase footfall, with some reporting their takings increasing by over 200%. Even churches and police stations are getting in on the action, with many creating tongue-in-cheek signs or social media posts to encourage (or discourage in certain law-enforcement cases) Pokemon hunters to get involved with their organisations.
While Pokestop locations cannot be controlled by either the public or business owners, it was inevitable that big brands would want to make the most of the opportunity to increase their foot traffic. When Pokemon Go launched in Japan, it was with the sponsorship of McDonald's: their 3000 restaurant locations are available as Gyms (ironic, considering that one of the main points of the game is to walk and exercise!) where players can battle for ultimate supremacy. Similar partnerships are expected across other territories, with other big brands applying to plant Pokestops and Gyms on their buildings.
So why is Pokemon Go such a worldwide phenomenon? Ultimately, it’s because of the Pokemon brand, which still has a loyal fanbase that spans age ranges, genders and ethnicities. Part of the appeal of Pokemon Go is that it gives older players who remember getting the original Game Boy titles what they always wanted: the ability to catch Pokemon in “real life”. Yes, kids love it too, but watch all of the videos of people sprinting across Central Park to catch a Vaporeon; most of them are adults desperate to tap into the nostalgia the game offers them. Niantic could (and have) created AR games that are based on original IP, and while they’ve had moderate success, it took the partnership with Nintendo and the Pokemon Company to really push this game into the public consciousness. Would it have been as explosively popular if it didn’t use one of the most beloved media franchises of all time? Probably not. At REWIND we always say that content is key; if you don’t have interesting content your VR/AR experience won’t be interesting either, and Pokemon Go proves that in spades.
VR isn’t over yet
Since Pokemon Go released, we’ve been hearing about how “Virtual Reality is dead and Pokemon Go killed it”. But is that actually true? The short answer is no. AR and VR are two completely different mediums for delivering content to an audience, and comparing them is like comparing TV and film. They have similarities sure, but ultimately they’re fundamentally different.
One of the main arguments is that VR is too expensive, and that AR utilises technology that’s already in your pocket. Well, so does VR. 360 degree video is easily accessible to everyone that owns a smartphone, and with an inexpensive addition of a headset like the Google Cardboard, you have have an immersive experience right there in your hands. Sure, ‘True-VR’ experiences are currently expensive, but so is all first generation technology: just look at how much games consoles cost back in the day. AR has been around in its current form longer than VR, and when VR finds its legs and the prices begin to come down on the PC-driven hardware, it will be much more accessible for people to buy into. PlayStation is already capitalising on its huge user-base and introducing the PSVR, a headset that will cost £350 and plug straight into any existing PS4 system: I’m sure this will be a lot easier for people to justify than the £2000 or so it costs to set up an Oculus or Vive from scratch…
Another argument from VR naysayers is that AR allows them to be social, and that’s definitely true. Pokemon Go is a very good example of this: it encourages you to get out of the house and hunt for Pokemon, which inevitably leads to players congregating in the same areas. I know from experience how much fun it is to go out looking with friends, and it’s even helping children on the Autistic spectrum learn to socialise with their peers. But if AR is so good at being a social medium, why does VR have to be? Why does all media have to have a social element? Why do we need to be connected all the time? There are many PC and console games that aren’t online-based or multiplayer, and I fully admit that after a full day of interacting with people I love to go home, shut myself away and play a game with no distractions. VR allows for solitary play, but it also allows for social connections. ‘Altspace VR’ is an experience that allows users in VR headsets all across the world to gather in a virtual space and fully interact with each other using microphones and motion controls. That sounds pretty social to me, and not at all as “dangerous and isolating” as some scaremongers would lead you to believe.
Ultimately, VR and AR are like cousins; they have their similarities, along with their own strengths and weaknesses. People might prefer one over the other, but they each have their place with both casual users and more serious developers.
So, what about the future? Sure, Pokemon Go is a phenomenon at the moment, but how can developers capitalise on current public interest and make sure the medium continues to grow?
Companies like Microsoft are already looking to the future, and developing MR (mixed reality) headsets for both professional and home use. MR is a term coined by Microsoft to try to explain their stunning Hololens headset without referring to AR which can conjure up images of people squinting at their phones and tablets as they wave them around. However, it’s essentially the same thing presented in a headset instead of on a flat screen. The Hololens is truly a piece of mind-blowing technology, and one which I firmly believe will change the world when the public are finally allowed to get their hands on it. It’s quite possibly one of the most important things humans have ever created, and I say that with a completely straight face. It will give us access to all the world’s knowledge instantaneously but, more importantly, Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella believes that Pokemon Go would be a perfect accompaniment to the Hololens. I would tend to agree.
Genre: Apps , Creative technology , Digital , VR