It’s not really about Pokemon7/20/2016
We’re tired of Pokemon Go. Every major Iowa news outlet has beaten the game to death. Kids are playing it, adults are playing it, and I wouldn’t doubt it if presidential candidates have given it a crack in a sad attempt to connect with the voting public. But let’s bypass the filler and get to the meat: What makes this game work?
Pokemon Go is a fantastic example of the potential for “augmented reality” technology. Unlike virtual reality (VR), which requires a user to wear a sort of headset that establishes a completely different location or experience, augmented reality (AR) takes a user’s current environment and places a digital layer on top of it. The concerns of knocking things over, hitting someone and getting taken advantage of are much smaller in AR than VR. Also, as any who can read, watch or breathe can attest, the technology required for AR experiences like Pokemon Go is pretty basic — a smartphone and a brain.
Virtual reality has been one of the buzziest tech terms for a half-decade now. The common refrain goes something like, “Everyone is going to be using VR in the future.” Apparently there’s a VR use for any imaginable situation. Doctors, students, bakers and priests will soon be donning blind-out visors that transport them to a digital world. The problem is VR headsets and adjoining computers are ridiculously expensive. At this point, purchasing a model for personal use is akin to buying a television in the early 50s — a serious luxury item. Of course, if VR is a television in that analogy, you’d think AR would be radio — an outmoded platform whose time has passed just as it is starting to take off. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
AR has been around for quite a while now, but the problem is no one has truly proven its value to consumers or developers. For roughly five years, AR has been helping shoppers virtually try on clothes, stargazers help find constellations in the sky and gamers get out into the real world and awkwardly battle digital foes. Before Pokemon Go, there was Ingress, a similar AR experience that required a user to track down and dismantle hidden alien mines via AR and his or her phone’s GPS. The game was just as addictive as Pokemon. The difference is Ingress was an original property, not a cultural monster like Pokemon. If “Go” was simply a game about capturing unbranded monsters instead of a Korean card game behemoth, every other person in this country would be playing it.
The exciting part about this craze is what it might mean for the future of AR. Pokemon Go has been an absurd success, to the point that its developer — Nintendo — has seen its stock value jump 25 percent. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Nintendo competitor or an application developer in a completely different industry, a 25 percent stock bump gets noticed. I give it six months to a year before we see an AR release of the XBox game “Halo,” or maybe Disney will tag team “Star Wars” episode eight with an AR experience. Think Pokemon is annoying? Wait until every child and manchild is out walking around your neighborhood waving his or her phone like it’s a lightsaber.
Maybe the virtual reality dream will eventually come true, but as it stands, augmented reality is here, and it is huge. So prepare yourself as texting-and-driving gets replaced with the new distraction: augmented-driving. CV
Patrick Boberg is a central Iowa creative media specialist. Follow him on Twitter @PatBoBomb.