Writing and discussion around augmented reality (AR) had, until a few weeks ago, been something of an obscurity, a filler piece for a tech commentary website in the expectation of some important Apple news or as an aside at a tech convention. With virtual reality (VR) taking all the column inches, its less mind-blowing offshoot has been under-discussed, and its potential has been somewhat lost against the fanfare surrounding VR headsets.
We published a piece last month arguing that mixed reality - a synonym of AR - is the future in a way that VR could never be and, if Pokemon Go has demonstrated one thing, it’s the fact that AR is simply a more accessible technology than VR ever will be. Before price is even considered - VR headsets, along with the powerful computers necessary to support the majority of them, do not come cheap - the fundamentals of VR will hold it back from mainstream use and make public use impossible. The logistics of VR - shutting out the real world completely - will resign it to private gaming, an antisocial medium emerging on a social landscape.
AR, alternatively, is sociable at its core. The technology has lingered on the fringes for longer than many realize, and has established itself in the public consciously far more quietly than the arrival of VR. From webcam facial recognition technology to Snapchat filters, many wouldn’t necessarily consider their picture manipulation software to be strictly AR, but the layering of digital elements over the real world is the technology at its most basic.
Pokemon Go takes the concept one step further. The Pokemon a user collects in-game are placed within the framework of the user’s actual surroundings, with a Google Maps-style rendering of the surrounding area acting as the game’s home screen. As the user moves around they encounter Pokemon which are imposed onto the user’s immediate surroundings with the use of the smartphone’s camera. The technology is imperfect but impressive, and the incredible rate of adoption has seen AR lurch from the fringes into a truly commanding position in the mainstream.
A franchise as huge as Pokemon is exactly what the technology needed. The franchise’s initial popularity exploded in the late 1990s, with the release of its Red and Blue editions for the original Gameboy. The brand has endured, though, and the demographic now interested in playing the latest incarnation spans decades. Go is in many ways a development of a similar Niantic game, Ingress, which used the same real-world setting and similar ‘collection’ gameplay. The game’s popularity plummeted quickly, though, without the cultural weight of a phenomenon like Pokemon to keep it afloat. Hijacking such a popular icon will buy the developers a great deal of affection and therefore patience as AR rather clunkily finds its feet.
Despite the failings of Ingress, one expects Pokemon Go is here to stay. The daily active user count is set to surpass that of Twitter despite being officially released in only a handful of countries and, if the company can add new features to give the game some much needed depth, it could go down as one of AR’s first major successes. In its current form, the technology actually carries the game. Forbes called it a ‘home run’ for the tech, which is novel enough to turn a relatively limited game into something fascinating.
It remains to be seen just how popular Pokemon Go will prove to be once the initial fanfare has dissipated, but the world is currently in hysteria over a game underpinned by some significant technology. Whether Pokemon Go proves to be AR’s defining opener, or simply a foundation for more feature-heavy games to build on, it will undoubtedly go down as one of the finest uses of a brand to introduce otherwise obscure technology.