How Pokémon Go made augmented reality a phenomenon

21 years on, the Pokémon franchise is still capturing the world’s attention. A breakthrough into augmented reality gaming, the latest addition is a worldwide hit with a history behind it.

 
  Pokémon Go players crowd a popular Pokestop in Bern near the Kulturcasino.   Fred Shaerli  /Wikimedia Commons  (CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Pokémon Go players crowd a popular Pokestop in Bern near the Kulturcasino. Fred Shaerli/Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 4.0)

 

Lilydale is 39 kilometres from Melbourne's CBD, but lately it has been inundated with visitors for a reason some might believe strange: its lake is full of Pokémon. It's not the only location in Melbourne attracting hordes of Pokémon Go players, who cluster around Pokémon hotspots like the steps of the State Library and the bridge outside Crown Casino, but it is certainly one of the most popular. 

Australia was one of the first countries in which Pokémon Go was made available — thanks to high rates of mobile usage and a low population, we're a testing ground for new apps — and the phenomenon has spread around the world. As Pokémon names like Zubat and Weedle become common parlance, so do tech buzzwords like 'augmented reality' and 'location-based gaming'. 

The term augmented reality (AR) was coined by a Boeing researcher in 1990 to describe technology that modifies a depiction of a real environment with computer-generated images and sound. One common application is technical software, like the program Volkswagen uses to show technicians what repairs will look like by projecting computer graphics over actual engines. Another is entertainment, of the kind that puts real-time information onto the football field as you're watching a match on TV.

Morgan Jaffit is the creative director of Defiant Development, creators of AR apps such as Floodlines, which shows dynamic flood maps of Brisbane, and Hoops AR, which makes basketball courts out of NBA tickets. “I really think the engineering applications are one of the most interesting possibilities,” he said. “Imagine being able to see a circuit diagram overlaid on something you're working on, or a parts list alongside your work space. I actually think AR is going to see the most growth outside of games — although games are great for showing people the potential of the technology.”

 
  AR modifies the real environment by overlaying computer-generated images and sound.   Daniele Civello/Flickr  (CC-BY-NC 2.0)

AR modifies the real environment by overlaying computer-generated images and sound. Daniele Civello/Flickr (CC-BY-NC 2.0)

 

While AR dates back to the 1960s, when primitive headsets overlayed wireframe visuals on the world around their wearers, there was a miniature AR boom in the 90s. By 1992 it was being used by the US Air Force to remotely control guided machinery, and in 1994 Julie Martin made the first AR theatre production, Dancing In Cyberspace. Columbia University worked on a way to embed multimedia documentaries about their campus’s history into its grounds while the University of South Australia developed an outdoor version of the first-person shooter game Quake. It remained a niche concern, however. Later attempts to mainstream the technology, such as Google's venture into wearable AR with Google Glass failed to set the world on fire thanks to concerns about the privacy of those around wearers — and, well, the fact that wearing them makes you look like a dork.

At the start of 2016, analysts predicted this would be the year VR took off — so having AR dominate the news instead is a surprise. There's an argument to be made that Pokémon Go isn't really AR at all, however. Where Dancing In Cyberspace had dancers moving around and through digital objects on stage, the creatures of Pokémon Go are simply drawn over the view from your phone's camera. You throw Pokéballs to capture them by flicking a finger across the screen, but Pokémon never hide behind real objects and Pokéballs pass right through them. There's even a toggle to turn the camera off entirely. 

Pokémon Go is undeniably an example of the parallel trend of location-based gaming. You may have heard of geocaching, a global treasure hunt in which players swap GPS locations for hidden stashes of objects with the rule that when you find a cache you take one item then leave one of your own. Mobile phones are well-suited to location-based games, like Zombies Run!, a fitness app that turns jogging into a game with audio commentary urging you to run increasingly faster, away from approaching zombies. Niantic Labs, the company responsible for Pokémon Go, previously created another location-based game called Ingress. This game transforms cities into sci-fi playgrounds where players fight over portals at locations such as public art and historic buildings. Ingress formed the foundations for Pokémon Go, but never enjoyed anything like its popularity.

 
  Ingress, the location-based AR game created by Niantic Labs, uses real life landmark locations as portals for players to battle over.   Fumi Yamazaki/Flickr  (CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Ingress, the location-based AR game created by Niantic Labs, uses real life landmark locations as portals for players to battle over. Fumi Yamazaki/Flickr (CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

 

This is partly due to branding. Though new Pokémon games continue being made, none have had the impact of the 1996 original, which spawned a successful cartoon, a trading card game and several movies. “Pokémon as a brand is over 21 years old, and likely many Pokemon Go players grew up watching or playing Pokemon as a kid,” said millennial marketing and tech expert Suzanne Nguyen. “So there is a major brand/game nostalgia.”

Pokémon Go cannily uses only the Pokémon from the original version — characters like Pikachu that are fondly remembered by '90s kids' who are now in their 20s. While it's common to see kids and parents playing together, surveys show that 46% of players are 18 to 29 years old, and who likely remember every word of the original cartoon's theme song. Besides nostalgia, Nguyen cites the way Pokémon Go interacts with the real world as contributing to its success. “The game make use of the smartphone’s camera and GPS navigation to create an augmented reality environment, and allow its players to catch Pokémon in real-life locations,” she explained. 

 

Pokémon Go players swarm a Dragonite at Lilydale Lake, previously a well-known nest for the rare dragon Pokémon. © Andy Thomas (used with permission)

 

The original Pokémon games and subsequent cartoon were about regular kids in a world full of strange creatures with their own rules. They took the ordinary and turned it magical, combining childhood loves like bug-collecting and owning your first pet, with fairies-in-the-garden fantasy. Pokémon Go takes that idea of “Wouldn't it be cool if the real world was full of fantastical creatures?” and lets you photograph it.

There are two main challenges in AR, Jaffit said: “One, you want to do something with AR that can't be done better without AR; and two, you want to do it in a way that reaches as many people as possible. Pokémon Go lets you turn off the AR, so it doesn't really achieve the first part — but it achieves the second in spades.”

Within a day of the app's release Twitter and Facebook were filling with pictures of Pokémon on people's shoulders or dinner plates, standing next to dogs or toilet bowls, often with hilarious results. The AR element of Pokémon Go is in the hands of users, who put Pokémon into contexts like these and then share them.

 
  One aspect of the Pokémon Go app that has contributed to its great success is the ability to take photos of the Pokémon in strange, and often amusing, places.  © Martyn Hayter and Pauli In (used with permission)

One aspect of the Pokémon Go app that has contributed to its great success is the ability to take photos of the Pokémon in strange, and often amusing, places. © Martyn Hayter and Pauli In (used with permission)

 

One final factor contributing to Pokémon Go's success is its use of mystery. The original Pokémon games were vague enough to breed playground legends about secret techniques for unlocking unique characters, stories that created a parallel mythology to the official one. Pokémon Go has a similar vagueness, with so many undocumented features that teams of researchers like the Silph Road community work around the clock debunking myths while collecting data in spreadsheets more complex than most tax returns. It's a continuation of a trend that's helped video games from Minecraft to Dark Souls by giving players things to gossip and theorise about when they're not playing. The difference is that Pokémon Go takes some of those interactions into the real world. Players have something to discuss when they spot each other at parks and street corners, which brings us to another feature: you need to leave the house to play it.

“It’s a pseudo-exercising game,” Nguyen said. “I’ve seen elders walking down the street playing games. Lost dog homes have used it to encourage walkers to walk their dogs for them.”

As Pokémon was followed by Digimon, Pokémon Go will have its pretenders. A remarkably similar game called City Spirit Go has already topped China's app store. Branded versions featuring Harry Potter or Ghostbusters are likely to follow. Games without popular licences will have a harder time, as Ingress did before it was remodelled with a more familiar facade.

And what about Pokémon Go itself? Plenty of apps go viral and then fade, as Draw Something, Trivia Crack and countless others have. But Niantic have plans to keep it updated, adding new features like trading between players or the ability to battle friends' Pokémon, and there are years of new creatures from the cartoon and video games to drip-feed in.

 
  Keen Pokémon masters flock to Lilydale Lake, a popular hotspot for Pokémon hunting. The lake saw over 4,000 visitors in one weekend — and 44 parking fines.  © Trung Ly (used with permission)

Keen Pokémon masters flock to Lilydale Lake, a popular hotspot for Pokémon hunting. The lake saw over 4,000 visitors in one weekend — and 44 parking fines. © Trung Ly (used with permission)

 

With new features will come new ways of making money. “While it’s not yet possible to sponsor a Pokéstop yet, Niantic is working on it,” said Nguyen, mentioning that McDonalds in Japan has a deal in place. Canny business owners are already finding ways to use it to their advantage. “They are dropping lures around their business to attract Pokémon to encourage human traffic. There are businesses using Pokémon Go as promotional discounts for services and food.” Even people who don't play AR games will live in a world changed by them, whether it's Lillydale Lake or your local burger joint that's flooded with people experiencing a new world.

“The good thing about Pokémon Go is it has proven the market exists, if you can do something that really grabs people,” said Jaffit. “I think from here we're going to see a lot more development, a lot of fresh ideas, and a lot of cheesy cash-in games!”

Edited by Sara Nyhuis