Future tech

Pokemon Go is set to turn the world on to the wonders of augmented reality

Virtual reality is still waiting for its breakthrough moment, but augmented reality went mainstream last weekend with the launch of Pokemon Go – and it might be coming to Hong Kong soon

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 July, 2016, 8:33am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 July, 2016, 10:01am

While fans of virtual reality wait for the platform’s breakthrough experience, its cousin augmented reality (AR) is having its moment – a cute, brightly coloured moment that leaves its users with sore feet.

Pokemon Go, a mobile game where players catch Pokemon cartoon creatures in the real world, has put augmented reality into the spotlight in a way that the more immersive, high-profile virtual reality has yet to achieve.

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“It’s going to bring [AR] into the consumer domain,” says Gartner analyst Brian Blau.

Pokemon Go features a GPS-enabled map of the player’s real-world surroundings. After tapping on one of the creatures, the app opens up the smartphone’s camera, showing the Pokemon seemingly moving in the real world.

The free-to-play game has achieved viral status after it sent thousands of people into streets, parks and shopping malls last weekend. Players shared their images of Pokemon appearing in random places, from bathrooms to bars and sporting events, plus complaints of sore legs (from all the wandering around) and battery drainage.

According to one estimate from research firm SensorTower, the game had more than 7.5 million downloads on Apple’s App Store and Google Play. It’s remained atop both app stores since launching last Thursday, and the game appears set to launch soon in Hong Kong.

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Whether they could define “augmented reality” or not, by the end of the weekend, many had experienced it – or watched others stumble around using it. “It really lets users get familiar with what AR can do,” says Dr Yue Fei, chief technology officer and co-founder of AR firm uSens.

That’s the kind of “killer app” or game experience that can bring a technology or device from obscurity to widespread use. In gaming, Nintendo’s Wii console took off when consumers flocked to play golf and tennis with motions that mimicked real life. Meanwhile, mobile gaming wouldn’t have soared to its current heights without help from the launch of games like Angry Birds in 2010.

So far, there hasn’t been a game that’s taken virtual reality from a technology sought by avid gamers and technophiles, despite billions of dollars in investments and the high ambitions of Facebook, Samsung and others.

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While those who’ve tried out early VR content have generally like it – even been wowed by it – none of the VR experiences have been so engaging that it’s broken out of the circles of core users. Some analysts, such as Deutsche Bank’s Ross Sandler, have suggested a “gap of disappointment” may be the theme of next year’s consumer tech conferences, as industry watchers ask, “Why are all these VR systems collecting dust?”

With the launch of Pokemon Go, that question may skirt the AR industry – a segment of the AR/VR market that’s forecast to become the dominant force in the alternate reality landscape. According to Digi-Capital, the VR/AR market will be worth US$120 billion by 2020, with US$90 billion of that generated by augmented reality.

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Much of the focus from AR developers has been on business uses. It’s the technology behind Google Glass, the smart eyewear shelved by the tech giant, and also the tech behind Microsoft’s HoloLens. Start-ups have developed AR software to help oil rig workers, aircraft mechanics, furniture shoppers and Mini Cooper drivers.

At a recent conference in San Francisco, Lenovo showed off an AR-enabled smartphone that made it easier for consumers to undertake the useful but hardly riveting task of home remodelling.

Gaming is often at the forefront of sea changes in technology, and here augmented reality has also been quietly making its mark.

Pokemon Go maker Niantic has attracted a following with Ingress, which features players joining missions to control virtual portals based on real-world locations across the globe.

Game publishers including Nintendo and Sony have also experimented with AR through their 3DS and PlayStation Vita hand-held platforms.

The success of Pokemon Go will likely spawn “lots of rip-offs”, says Gartner’s Blau. But he doubts AR’s future will rely on concepts such as Pokemon Go. Instead, Blau projects in several years, AR will follow VR and take the form of headsets, including Microsoft’s HoloLens platform. “Video games have mainly been played on a flat screen,” says Blau. “That’s changed today.”