Pokemon Go is the killer app that took augmented reality mainstream – and now others will follow
AR is a technology that’s been around for a while but Nintendo’s monster-hunting game has made it white-hot – and other apps and gadgets will benefit from the interest
It was supposed to be the year virtual reality (VR) finally took off, but thanks to Pokemon Go, a game that encourages players to go hunting on real streets for cartoon monsters that appear on a smartphone screen, it’s augmented reality (AR) that everyone’s now talking about.
The technology – where computer-designed graphics are overlaid onto reality using a phone – isn’t new, but Pokemon Go’s remarkable success has shown how a “killer app” can push its application to the mainstream.
Apple may have created a world of digital music when it started selling the iPod, but MP3s existed long before, while even the internet didn’t really catch on until email brought a reason to use it.
“Millennials have grown up with Pokemon, but have now switched from catching them in the virtual world to catching them in the physical one,” says James Chandler, global mobile director at global media and marketing company Mindshare.
“But it’s not a one-off instant gratification hit like many AR experiences that have come before – the experience is gamified, encouraging users to explore the world around them.”
Some may find it ironic it should take Nintendo’s unashamedly nostalgic mobile game to introduce AR to smartphone users across the world but it has nonetheless unleashed a new wave of interest in the technology.
There are plenty of apps and new gadgets that promise not only to appeal to curious minds but also to take AR to the next level.
Pokemon Go is all about pointing a smartphone’s camera at a real place to reveal layers of digital information, which is exactly the same core technology behind image messaging app Snapchat’s new Lenses feature, which allows users to apply wacky, distorting filters to selfies.
The Layar app launches AR content when you scan a code in a magazine or advertisement, while Ingress is a cult AR game similar to Pokemon Go, which some are predicting could overtake it in popularity once its novelty has worn off.
Far more educational, however, is Blippar, a “visual discovery” app that also looks to capitalise on people’s natural curiosity.
“Blippar has positioned its tech as a type of visual search, exploring the world around you using the device camera,” says Chandler, who describes the point-and-shoot technology as “frictionless discovery”.
“Rather than trying to identify a famous statue in Trafalgar Square in London, for example, then type a search for it, you open Blippar and position it in your camera view to automatically overlay information, photos and reviews about it,” he says, adding that AR’s blurring of the physical and the digital is a huge opportunity for educators.
Users “blip” everyday objects to unlock content, which has obvious uses in education, but Chandler thinks this kind of AR is all about changing the way we search the web, and even the devices we use.
“As mobile devices change from something we hold in our hands to something we wear on our wrist, in our ears, or look through, search will primarily become voice-based and visual, rather than typed,” says Chandler, indicating that AR is not just about phones, but wearable devices, too.
Perhaps the most interesting are transparent AR headsets, which overlay information onto the real world. These are not to be confused with VR headsets like Oculus Rift, HTC Vive or PlayStation VR, all of which block out reality to provide a totally immersive, solitary experience.
The most famous AR headset is, of course, Google Glass, which appeared back in 2013, but was quickly judged a failure.
On the surface, the problem was an intrusion of privacy – wearers could take photos anywhere, anytime – though actually the issue was that Google Glass lacked a killer app.
“Google Glass will be back in some shape or form,” says Chandler. “Perhaps it was just too niche, too early.”
From an educational standpoint, Google Glass was also far too expensive. “When it comes to education, budget is a key restriction,” says Robert McFarlane, head of labs at London-based digital agency Head.
“When Google Glass was tested in schools, the price barrier was a major obstacle, so in practice they would likely be limited to hand-held AR experiences with tablets for the time being.”
Industry is beginning to embrace much more serious forms of AR using dedicated headsets much like Google Glass. A museum in Brescia, Italy, recently created an AR tour through the largest archaeological site of ancient Roman ruins in northern Italy using Epson’s GPS-enabled Moverio smart glasses.
The same hardware is being used by Volkswagen for training, with the trainer putting images and information into engineers’ field of view; it’s not interactive, nor it is particularly advanced compared to some AR, but it does mean there’s no need to use training manuals, or even to look away from what you’re doing.
“The jobs that most benefit from advanced AR are those where you need to do things with your hands and need quick access to data, information and instruction,” says McFarlane.
“When you’re still learning something practical, AR comes into its own, especially at that point when you’re trying to bring separate bits of knowledge together, acting almost like a pair of stabilisers.
“Say you’re learning how to fix an engine, but you don’t know how the individual components slot together – AR would offer a visual overlay giving info about each component available as well as arrows pointing to where they are in the engine.”
The upcoming Vuzix M3000 headset offers much the same hands-free digital access to information, though it also allows the wearer to reach out and interact with virtual 3D objects overlaid, in the real world.
Not surprisingly, Vuzix has already shown a demo of its smart glasses being used to view an animated character, proving that hands-free Pokemon Go will soon be possible.
“The success of Pokemon Go represents one of the first-use cases to bring AR into the consumer world and shows just how huge this can be,” says Paul Travers, president and chief executive at Vuzix, adding that he has long anticipated that the adoption curve for AR would eventually be rapid.
There are several other AR headsets also on the horizon, including the Canon MR, DAQRI Smart Helmet, Magic Leap and Microsoft’s HoloLens.
It may have taken a video game to get most people interested in AR, but as usual, Nasa is way ahead of the curve. The US space agency sent two HoloLens headsets up to the International Space Station late last year. As part of Project Sidekick, Nasa is testing how holographic computing could help reduce the need to train astronauts, who can instead call-up information from Mission Control, as and when they need it, via a Skype-powered “remote expert” mode.
However, hidden in there is perhaps the biggest reason to get excited about AR for both education and work in general; the ability to interact with computers without having to touch any hardware.
“A hands-free way of experiencing AR is the way to go for me,” says McFarlane, who hopes that the first wave of AR headsets will have smooth enough head-tracking and a field of view that’s wide enough to convince us all that AR has a future.
Long after everyone has forgotten about Pokemon Go, it’s these kind of virtual workspaces that are likely to be the next killer app for AR.