Pokemon have re-entered the cultural consciousness through the mega-hit mobile app Pokemon Go. As well has being a success with gamers, it may finally introduce the world to the idea of augmented reality. MICHAEL WRIGHT reports.
On a weekday afternoon in the Christchurch seaside suburb of Sumner, about 20 people sit outside in the winter sun, staring at their phones. Nothing special there. Since smartphones have existed most of us have been guilty of vacating the real world to gawp at their screens, at least for a while.
This was different, though. Over about five minutes, no-one looked up. No-one. No-one finished their coffee break and went back to work, no-one hit “send” on their text or email and put their device back in their pocket. Even the most devout phone addict comes up for air now and then. On this day, the most animated anyone got was to nudge a companion to implore them to look at one phone screen instead of another.
Despite existing barely a month, Pokemon Go has obliterated pretty much everything that came before it in the mobile gaming world. The app, responsible for the above scene, has been installed on smartphones more than 75 million times. At its peak, in mid-July, about 25 million people were playing it daily.
There are many reasons for this success. The Japanese cartoon franchise Pokemon has 20 years of cultural capital to fall back on and, crucially, the pre-teens who were first enraptured by it in the late 1990s are now tech-savvy 20-somethings ready for a nostalgic fix. It taps into our instincts for competition, collection and camaraderie that are the key to any gaming chart-topper. Mostly though, it combines the Pokémon universe with the real one. They are out there and you’ve gotta catch ’em all.
To this end, Pokemon Go has served as the breakthrough moment for the concept of augmented reality (AR) – where the real and virtual worlds come together. Users track the physical locations of the Pokemon then, seeing the digital characters overlaid on the real world through the camera in their smartphone, trap them and use these virtual armies to wage a territorial battle. Players can join one of three global teams and fight for world domination over the other two.
John Grohol, an American psychologist who specialises in the effect of technology on mental health, says this real-virtual overlay is a key point of difference for Pokemon Go.
“If you just had a map and you just had characters pop up, I don’t think it would be as engaging because the character’s not in the surrounding environment that you’re literally in in that moment.
“By keeping your surroundings on the screen, the game is immersing itself into your life rather than you immersing yourself into the game’s life. I think that’s a crucial difference and it’s a breakthrough in anything I’ve seen in augmented reality.”
AR has long been the technology with lots of potential that was never realised. The possibilities seemed endless. We could fling virtual screens around with our fingers the way Tom Cruise did to pre-emptively catch baddies in Minority Report, or communicate with the holographic being of the person we wanted to talk to, à la Darth Vader in Star Wars.
Neither of those things has happened, but Pokemon Go is the first time a mass audience can see for themselves that they might. The app has only a tenuous link to AR and the element it does have is not a crucial facet of the gameplay, but when something is a phenomenon on the level of Pokemon Go, that is enough of a connection.
University of Canterbury professor Rob Lindeman says the game is “on the fringe of being AR”. Making its characters virtually visible in the real world was mostly a gimmick, he says.
“A lot of people would say Pokemon Go is a location-based gaming thing and there is an AR component to it.
“Some people, they like this notion of being able to see the Pokemon in the real world [but] I think if it weren’t there, it would still be successful.”
Lindeman is research leader at the HitLab NZ, a “human-computer interface research centre” at the university that develops applications for virtual and augmented reality technology. Successes include aversion therapy treatment – including placing a virtual spider on the hand of an arachnophobe – and a programme called Quiver, which brings a two-dimensional drawing to life as a virtual being in the real world.
These more closely adhere to what augmented reality is considered to be. In the late 90s, American academic Ron Azuma laid down some ground rules for what constituted AR, including combining the real and virtual worlds, virtual beings interacting with that real environment once they are in it and registering in 3D. Pokemon Go only does one of those.
“The most obvious thing for Pokemon is the fact that it’s only registered with respect to rotation,” HitLab research scientist Adrian Clark says.
“If you see a Pokemon and you walk towards it it’s always floating the same distance away. You can’t actually walk up to it. If it’s 10 metres away from you, it will always be 10 metres away from you.”
“True” AR wouldn’t let that happen. But Pokemon Go players aren’t about to dwell on categorical vagaries. If Pikachu pops up on your coffee table one day, that’s cool.
“It’s cool when you’ve got a flying Pokemon because they will literally fly around your head,” Pokémon Go player Candice Bresser, 21, says.
“You actually have to follow them round which is quite annoying but it does make the game a bit more challenging. I think the AR side is more challenging, therefore more fun.”
But many users have dispensed with the AR element of the game altogether. The function is a drain on smartphone batteries and the moving background can be disorienting when you have a target in your sights, so, once the novelty factor has waned, lots of people turn it off. When you’re deep into a Pokemon Go obsession it’s a distraction you can do without.
But even this passing fancy is a giant win for AR. Its champions struggled for years to even get people to know what it is, and the waters became somewhat muddied in 2015 when Microsoft called its AR platform Windows Holographic. Virtual reality never had this kind of branding problem during its 90s zeitgeist.
“Nobody really knew what AR was or had heard of it,” Lindeman says, “But now everybody’s like ‘AR, now I’ve got it’.”
That makes a big difference when you’re pitching an idea like Quiver and have to explain the technology to a roomful of investors.
“When we launched it three or four years ago nobody had any idea what AR was,” Clark says.
“So you get up to try and pitch to investors and say ‘This is augmented reality’. The first question is, ‘What’s augmented reality?’
“If you say, ‘Similar to Pokémon Go’, people immediately get that idea.”
Seventy-five million downloads will do that. Even if only a tiny fraction of those get people interested in AR, it would be a momentous breakthrough.
“Going around and finding [Pokémon] in the real world, you actually think it’s right in front of you and you look past your phone and you’re like, ‘Oh. That’s a shame. It’s not right there,'” Candice Bresser says.
“You do kind of forget that they’re fake, just a little bit, when you’ve got it on. I kind of really wish that they’d hurry up and make them real.”