Why Pokémon Go is ruining AR’s reputation

Pokémon have taken over the SuperData offices just like they have taken over the world. With earnings upwards of $4 million a month day, there is no question that nostalgia, stellar gameplay and novel features have created a game worthy of its virality. One of the biggest attractions has been what the developers labeled AR mode. But turning on AR mode does not mean Pokémon are augmenting your reality. A number of outlets like Fast Company and Forbes have likewise miscategorized the game, leading to a frenzy of chatter about AR that has largely been absent up until now. But equating Pokémon GO to AR is like saying the color TV is an IMAX screen, which degrades the public’s perception of what AR actually is and stifles its potential growth.

So what is augmented reality anyway?

The reality is that Pokémon Go simply is not augmented reality. Since people have varying definitions for AR, let’s look at the term in its purest sense. The implication is that reality is augmented by digital content, and while Pokémon and Poké Balls appear over the reality your camera is showing, they still exist separately from the real world since they neither affect nor being affected by it.

There are past examples of actual AR that were previously dismissed. Remember Google Effects, the app that lets you dress yourself with pirate hats and mustaches when you are on camera? How about the Sony Eye Toy, a camera players could use to control gameplay through gesture recognition?  These respond to your movements while you simply exist — you do not need to act upon the content for it to react to you.

Context-aware content is also not augmented reality.

Marking gyms and Poké Stops on a digital map of the real-world is not AR either. That is context-aware content, or when real-world situations and environments affect digital content. Here, the real world is acting upon the digital world, whereas AR is digital content that adjusts the perception of what exists together. The map capabilities in the game are akin to those of Google Maps, a digital space that is influenced by real-time situations, not a reality that is influenced by digital situations.

Pokémon Go is not a reason to stop funding virtual reality.

Shuffling through the media frenzy around Pokémon Go you can hear a lot of people changing their tune about the once forgotten AR technology. According to the internet, games are going to drive AR and not VR, and investors got it all wrong during the VR gold rush. VR is admittedly an isolating experience, and AR allows for immersion without confinement. But the two technologies are not competing, they are contributing to the same cause. We don’t know what we don’t know, and when engineers were inventing CPUs it’s likely they could not conceptualize what today’s Internet would look like. So to advance these technologies, we need investors who support both and help grow the entire alternative reality industry.

Pokémon Go is ruining people’s expectations for AR.

Reality implies a person has agency–that their environment accommodates them the same way they must accommodate it. 360 video, for instance, does not provide users agency, as it is simply an extended point of view, not an interactive environment. In this case, the user cannot be a participant, only a viewer. Adoption of alternative reality relies on experiencing it, especially for the first time. So when Google Cardboard is labeled VR, users see that as representative of all VR technology and they underestimate its true capabilities.

Similar to the Google Cardboard, Pokémon Go allows players to view content differently, but they still do not have the ability to act within it. The public is under a false presumption as to what devices like Hololens, Magic Leap or Meta can really offer. The headsets’ high price points then denigrate the integrity of the technology, something that is currently plaguing high-end VR headsets like the HTC Vive and Oculus. And since 64% of Americans are not interested in or don’t know what AR is, this false branding can really hurt the market’s ability to reach its forecasted $1.5B in revenue by 2018E.

We can still learn a lot about AR from Pokémon Go.

While Pokémon Go does not live within an augmented reality, it still offers lessons we can apply to better AR. For instance, public consumption of immersive technology has sparked safety concerns. If players turn on AR mode, they are viewing the world through the game’s lens, which impairs their ability to maneuver through the real world. People already walk and text which is dangerous enough, but since they cannot see their surroundings at all when looking at their screen they are more likely to look up. Seeing reality through a phone’s camera gives players a false sense of security because they are technically able to see what’s in front of them. That is something that will also affect AR users and developers will need to accommodate for this.

Pokémon Go can also be AR’s gateway drug if people understand what it actually is. The game’s “AR” mode is a fun and novel feature, so in the same way the Google Cardboard can motivate people to try true VR, Pokémon Go can do the same.

In the end, adoption will be contingent on getting people to understand that the game offers a zygote of the AR experience so they are motivated to seek out the real thing. Hopefully Niantec and other developers will use this conversation to go even further and truly develop accessible AR. But until then, we need to be careful not to let our misconceptions augment how we define augmented reality.