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Opinion and Insight
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Pokémon Go and Why Augmented Reality is Suddenly Catching ‘em All

LBB Editorial, 2 months, 2 weeks ago

Laura Swinton on the week’s surprise craze and how Pikachu and co have suddenly made AR mainstream

Pokémon Go and Why Augmented Reality is Suddenly Catching ‘em All

It’s been, I think it’s fair to say, a fairly ar-maybe-geddony few weeks. The last few Laura’s Words have not been on the shiny happy end of the spectrum. Amidst the gloom, though, it would have been easy to overlook the fact that something quite significant has happened. And the ad and production industry has Nintendo to thank for it. Well. Nintendo and kidulty 20-somethings.

Augmented Reality has just become ‘A Thing’. Ok, it was a thing for a while. Years even. But now it’s A Thing. For those of a certain age, the release of Pokémon Go, the augmented reality mobile game, has dominated all other conversation.

Now to bring you up to speed – and as a 32-year-old, who was a year or two too late for the all-consuming Pokémon craze at school, this is as much personal homework than anything else – Pokémon is the normcore millennial equivalent of the gladiatorial ring of Ancient Rome. Capture some free souls, train them up and pit them against each other in brutal-yet-kawaii death matches. It’s been played as a card game, on the Gameboy, the DS… and now… the real world. Almost. The AR game (from a notoriously mobile-shy Nintendo) has captured the imaginations of those who grew up with the game.

Gamers can find Pokémon and training gyms on a real-world map, and, by using their device’s camera, they can see their beloved characters mapped onto reality. 

To give you an idea of the game’s immediate popularity, although the game is only officially available in the US, Australia and New Zealand, fans have been finding hacks and workarounds to get it in non-official territories like the UK, France and more. It’s only been out a week and it’s already had an estimated 7.5 million downloads and is generating $1.6million EVERY DAY. As of Tuesday, the Nintendo share price has soared 53 per cent and the company’s value has exploded by £7billion since the game was launched on July 7. 

That success, it seems, was fairly unexpected. Since its launch, the game’s servers have been overloaded, so great is the demand – but a little thing like server issues hasn’t been enough to deter ardent fans.

It’s already ignited eye-popping stories (the woman who discovered a corpse while pursuing a Pokémon, the armed gangs luring players into traps, the dad-to-be who caught a Pidgey on his wife’s bed in the maternity ward). It’s also inspired a few obligatory ‘dank memes’ (sigh). How do you ‘kidnap a 28-year-old in 2016’? According to the internet you trawl around in a dodgy truck with ‘RARE POKEMON INSIDE’ scrawled on the side. Why is David Cameron so relieved about giving up his post as UK Prime Minister? According to the Internet, because he’s now free to pursue his dreams of ‘catching ‘em all’.

The resounding and fairly immediate success of Pokémon Go is also a useful learning experience.

The first thing is that brands have clearly been getting it all wrong when it comes to celebrity endorsements. Forget Kimmy K, if you want to reach 20-30 year olds, just cover your brands in Pokémon. Or Harry Potter. 

The second is that technological adoption is non-linear. We can invest millions in crafting interesting experiences on new platforms but that doesn’t mean that it will naturally and automatically result in mass adoption. The technology behind Pokémon Go isn’t all that new. The fairly visible bones of Pokémon Go lie in another game, Ingress, developed by Niantic. The game was originally released for Android in 2012, and for iPhone in 2014. It was big, in certain circles, but it wasn’t what you’d call mainstream. In December, Niantic announced that they were working with Nintendo on Pokémon Go, essentially whitelabelling their game (meaning Nintendo benefit from their tech, points system and lessons learned). Ingress was biggish, but without that tie-in with a massively popular IP, it could never have generated the volume of interest of the past few weeks.

Augmented reality technology is surprisingly old. It dates back to 1968 (no, really) and to Ivan Sutherland’s VR/AR wireframe experience The Sword of Damocles. I remember first coming across it in the mid-noughties, when Canon created an AR experience to promote a new digital camera, in which one could look through the camera’s viewfinder to see a 3D model dinosaur. At the time my colleagues and I dismissed it with ‘what’s the flipping point of that’. For reference, my phone of choice was a floral gold Nokia 7360, with a 0.3 megapixel camera, so ‘this would be amazing on a smartphone’ wasn’t really in my mental phrasebook. AR has taken years to find the devices to support it and the mind sets to accept it – and the platform to make it truly accessible, which in this case is Pokémon. (It’s an amusing irony that Nintendo has hugely resisted mobile gaming, preferring to keep its IP on its own platforms like the Wii and DS – and has suddenly leapfrogged all of its competitors with one game.)

Augmented reality’s sister technology, virtual reality, is yet to find that catalyst. Yes, the ad and production industry is piling loadsamoney into it, but we’re yet to hit that gear crunch moment. But the unexpected alchemy of Pokémon Go is enough to persuade me to keep the faith… it will find that thing to propel it into everyone’s hands, hearts and minds. 

Notably, those in the business who maintain that creativity, story and idea are more important than tech have been proven correct. No one’s downloading Pokémon Go because they are really excited about AR and have heard so much about it – they’re downloading it because they love the characters and the world of Pokémon. They’re playing with fondly-remembered characters, not ‘doing AR’.

And a cheeky little third insight. Pokémon Go has, according to anecdotal evidence, got people exercising. Acquaintances who have barely ventured further than their parents’ spare room in a decade are spontaneously suggesting walks round the park. Ambles beyond the local pub to the not-so-local pub. For everything Nike Fuelband and Fitbit have done for fitness motivation, they never quite captured the ‘game’ part of the gamification of exercise. They were always intrinsically about health and fitness which, though worthy, is not so much about fun.

It has also, as a friend of mine pointed out, circumvented the very real concerns about privacy that people had about Ingress. LOL, who cares about tech giants harvesting my location data if it means I can get my own Pikachu? 

So… in the immediate context of current events the Pokémon Go fad might seem a bit light and superficial. It may not be the greatest game ever. It may be glitchy and data-draining. But it’s also hugely significant.

Genre: Creative technology