First things first: Pokemon Go is not an augmented reality app. Yes, it has the little monsters superimposed on your phone camera feed and you can interact with them but the physical world seen through the camera has no role to play in the game. You can’t interact with it and it has no effect on anything you do. The much-publicised unintended outcomes where players have injured themselves or others simply serve to illustrate this point: the physical world is an impediment to the game, not part of it.
The only purpose of the phone in the game is to tell you that you have arrived in the right location and are oriented correctly to see the monster. The game is using GPS, compass and screen, that’s all: the camera is superfluous and the screen could just as easily display anything or nothing except the monsters without affecting the gameplay at all.
So what we have is an amazingly successful Treasure Hunt/GeoCacheing game with almost none of the attributes of augmented reality. Even so, it still has important lessons for how and why successful AR applications will make the grade and for why VR will always be a niche application.
The key feature of Pokemon Go is that it is highly social, it’s hardly a secret that the most successful online apps by far are social apps, and the more immediate it can be, the more successful an app will be. This is immediacy in the sense of responsiveness; real time, lightweight and disposable. The more an app is like chatting to real people in real life, the more appeal it has; snail mail is trumped by fax which is trumped by email and so on through text, snapchat and the rest.
We see it also in games, where quake arena is better than quake on its own. People want to be with people and Pokemon Go gives anyone who already plays the game an excuse to go out and enjoy it in the company of others. Of course, it also helps that Pokemon is an established game in its own right and the new version was made available on a ubiquitous platform so that more or less anyone could join in with no waiting, no learning curve and no real effort. Download, login and go. The trick now will be to keep them playing but that is another story.
So, out of all of this, we can discern the outlines of what can lead to a successful AR application: it must enable some existing activity in an improved way, it must involve little to no effort to take part and it must bring people together to share the experience.
These last two are the requirements that will sink VR. While there is certainly a place for immersion, it isn’t enough on its own and its corrollary, isolation, will be enough to restrict VR to a niche. Apple’s Tim Cook alluded to this recently when explaining why Apple has not yet taken any public steps into VR when he said: “Virtual reality sort of encloses ... the person into an experience that ... has a lower commercial interest over time ” and he’s right; that’s not compelling for most people.
If the requirements set out above seem daunting - how will it be possible to launch an AR app on a ubiquitous platform when it doesn’t exist yet? – Pokemon Go has another lesson for us: baby steps are acceptable. Simply adding SLAM to a phone and using that as the basis for real world interaction will take us to the next level and thanks to Tango, we will be getting that within the year.
Advances in display technology like Epson’s Moverio, perhaps, will make the headset experience better but until then, we have evidence that head mounted displays are not necessary. AR doesn’t have to be immersive which means it doesn’t have to be hands-free, leaving developers the freedom to deliver a much wider range of AR experiences without needing to address the headset problems which plague VR.
So, while Pokemon Go has caused much eye-rolling in some quarters for stealing the AR limelight while not actually being AR, it has turned out to be a very positive thing. Simply by being different, it has broken down preconceived notions of what AR is, pointed out once again what is really important and shown us a way forward based on users, rather than technology.