Pokémon Go passes peak but augmented reality to live on

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 September, 2016, 9:03pm
UPDATED : Friday, 02 September, 2016, 9:43pm

When Pokémon Go launched in July, the game quickly swept up gamers in a craze across the world, capturing more than 20 million active users in less than two weeks. Children and young adults alike, who would otherwise stay indoors, went outside and socialised. Hundreds of players stormed to parks to catch Pokémon. Cafés, bars, and pizza restaurants were busy setting up “Lure Modules” – the purchasable in-game item that attracts the virtual monsters, which, in turn, increases real customer traffic.

But just as the popularity rose quickly, so did its decline. The BBC reported that some 10 million players have given it up since mid-July. The decline occurred when Pokémon Go was rolling out across dozens of countries in Asia and Latin America, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan. Which only means the fall in popularity in the United States and Europe must have been steeper still.

Even so, the rise of Pokémon Go, however short-lived it might be, has forever changed the development of augmented reality (AR).

Augmented reality is far from new. The idea of creating a view of the real-world environment whose elements are overlaid (or augmented) with computer-generated images had long been articulated by Tom Caudell, a Boeing researcher, back in 1990. He coined the term “AR” to describe an electronic system that guides workers to install aircraft electrical cables and fuselage. On an immersive digital display, virtual graphics are blended with physical images. Many found the concept intriguing, but AR remained no more than a technology curiosity with few tangible benefits. Most research was conducted by independent hobbyists at universities.

Almost all early AR innovators focused entirely on industrial applications. Those bulky, expensive, head-mounted display devices did not appeal much to end-consumers. After more than two decades, the closest application that had amounted to a useful tool was Volkswagen’s iPad app, which projects visual labels and instructions in real time to guide mechanic operators to fix car parts.

Pokémon Go broke the deadlock. Yes, Pokémon may be only a game for teens and millennials, but it has irrevocably changed societal expectations of what information is presented and how it is accessed. Very soon, visitors at major museums will demand to know everything about the exhibit’s installations far beyond what is posted on the walls. At boutique galleries in Central, discerning shoppers will expect to hold up their phones to obtain more details about how the latest ceramic vase is handcrafted.

Young women may no longer have the patience to wait in line outside fitting rooms at H&M when they could opt for an immediate AR fitting trial. Typing a search term into one’s browser feels so yesteryear. Precisely this shift in public expectation will nudge companies from all sectors to aggressively invest in AR.

There is little doubt Pokémon Go’s early success has spurred technology companies to double down their commitment on AR to meet the future opportunities of a post-smartphone era. For the past few years, the only viable products on the market were HTC’s Vive and the Oculus Rift. But earlier this month, just as Pokémon was peaking out, Intel announced Project Alloy, an open-source platform, so any of its traditional hardware partners can start building AR devices – a classic playbook of Intel’s PC strategy. About the same time, Microsoft promised to make available an operating system for AR headset makers named Windows Holographic as early as 2017, picking up where Pokémon Go leaves off.

Breakthrough innovation is in fact as much about social evolution as it is about technological improvement. Big companies, in particular, need evidence of strong market support. So whether you are a start-up entrepreneur or the head of a multinational, never dismiss a teenage passion as mere folly. They may be simple customers who cannot pay much, but they tell us where the market will go. As author William Gibson famously said: “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

Howard Yu is a professor of strategy and innovation at IMD Business School