Pokémon GO and the Future of AR

This post was originally published to AxonVR.com. Read the original blog post here.

Green Lake park is a go-to hangout for Seattleites in the summer. I live nearby and run the 3-mile loop around the lake most days. As I run, I crisscross my way through dog walkers, stroller pushers, and Frisbee throwers. This weekend, I dodged a new breed of Green Lake visitor: Pokémon GO players.

Pokémon GO is an augmented reality (AR) mobile app that launched July 6. A staggering 7.5 million people downloaded it in its first week. Nintendo, Pokémon’s parent company, earns an estimated $1.6 million per day through in-app purchases alone. Pokémon GO is invading social media with Facebook groups, Meetup events, and SubReddits. Visit your local park, and I’m sure you’ll see a handful of GO players who gotta catch ‘em all.

Last weekend, Green Lake felt like The Twilight Zone. It’s still the same, familiar park I visit every day, but now it’s overrun with people who are pointing their phones to catch the magical monsters from my favorite childhood game.

Pokémon GO players gather at a Pok  éspot in   Seattle's Green Lake Park. Reminds me of a modern day version of  Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte .

Pokémon GO players gather at a Pokéspot in Seattle's Green Lake Park. Reminds me of a modern day version of Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

I stopped near a cluster of GO players, and laughed when I saw their phone screens: a wild Hitmonlee appeared. Pokémon GO superimposed the character on the real world through the phone’s camera. We were all at the same park, but the Pokémon players were having a very different – a very “augmented” – experience than the rest of us. 

“Did something happen?!”

Asks an older man who passes by. He’s worried. After a week of horrific news in Minnesota, Baton Rouge, and Dallas, he sees people glued to their smart phones and fears there’s been another tragedy.

A GO player shows the man her phone. On the screen, the Hitmonlee spins in circles kicking in front of them on the trail. The relieved man laughs, and continues on his evening walk.

I get home and download GO for myself. I ask my wife to install it on her phone too. She hesitates. She’s not the nerd that I am. I plead, and she agrees to try it, but only for a ten-minute walk.

We get home two hours later.

We spent that time catching Pokémon together. We also talked to other players: individuals, groups, couples, and friends. 

We’ve made our way around Green Lake's loop a thousand times. Never before have we met so many strangers on a walk. Pokémon GO is a social app unlike any other.

“Get off your phones!”

A runner shouts as he passes a group of us.  His tone is condescending, but I empathize with his viewpoint. When I’m at a park, I'm usually there to engage with the natural environment around me, not with my phone.

We’re all used to seeing people on their phones in public: Snapping, Instagramming, and texting. Sometimes I even spot someone making a phone call! In all of these cases, the phone user is communicating with whomever is on the other end of that phone: friends on Snapchat, followers on Instagram, or the recipient of that text message. These users communicate digitally with their own network – a network removed from their physical environment.

Pokémon GO brings a different type communication to the smart phone. Users not only interact through the app with other Pokémon GO players, but they communicate with players in the same physical space. They talk to each other about the game. They compare notes on what they’ve caught. They talk about hot spots, and share stories about playing the game. They’re engaging with the natural world, they’re engaging with each other, and they’re engaging with the digital network that brings these otherwise separate worlds together. 

This is a glimpse of what augmented reality has to offer.

Pokémon GO is full of bugs (and not just Caterpies). The server crashes intermittently. The app freezes about 25% of the time I make a catch. It drains phone batteries with such speed that serious GO players plug their phones into external battery chargers as they play. Even when it works flawlessly, the superimposed Pokémon characters are far from realistic.

Despite all of these shortcomings, Pokémon GO is a massive success. Nintendo, once a dormant giant in gaming, erupted with a 25% stock increase. It's poised to pass Twitter in active users, and those users engage with it for hours of daily use.

Now imagine the experience with better technology.

The same way Google Cardboard gives us a glimpse of the possibilities of virtual reality, Pokémon GO offers a first look at the potential of augmented reality. Now that millions have had their first AR experience, consumers will start to demand higher quality, more immersive experiences. Just as a Rift or a Vive offers a much more robust VR experience than Cardboard, upcoming AR headsets will offer capabilities beyond our smart phones. Wearables like Hololens and Meta can project data over the real world without the distraction of holding a phone.

Picture playing Pokémon GO through AR glasses that display high quality renderings, like the ones we see in Magic Leap’s demo videos. Combine that with wearables that provide haptic feedback, like the high fidelity touch enabled by our AxonSkin technology.

Imagine the gameplay. You look to the sky and see a Dragonite soaring overhead. You snatch a digital PokéBall from your belt. You feel lifelike feedback as you fling it into the air. You feel what it’s like to be a Pokémon master. The very best, like no one ever was.

When AR intersects with haptic technology, the possibilities will be boundless. The world will feel more magical. This is the world the AxonVR team is working to help create.

The dream of the '90s is alive in Pokémon.

Even with a buggy smart phone app, millions of users are willing to suspend disbelief and engage in a world of fantasy. It’s amazing what happens when you combine rudimentary AR technology and '90s nostalgia. It’s less than a week old, and already the results are incredible.

  • I’ve never seen an app make such a visible real world impact.
  • I’ve never seen an app turn strangers into friends so quickly.
  • I’ve never seen an app motivate so many people to get outside and play.

And it’s only the first generation.

I can’t wait to see what the future holds for AR.