The Pokémon app has taken the world by storm since its release last week. It sits atop the app rankings of both the Apple App Store and Google Play, and it has single handedly increased Nintendo's market value by $9 billion. For Pokémon fans, this is the game they'd long been waiting for. For those in tech, this is the watershed moment AR has long needed.
"It's not AR just for the sake of AR, it's actually the closest you can get to being a Pokémon trainer," said Ryan Pamplin, vice president of partnerships at Meta, a Silicon Valley startup that specializes in building holographic computers, including the Meta 2 AR glasses. "The technology finally exists to deliver an experience much closer to the childhood dreams of smartphone owners everywhere. The excitement around Pokémon Go is just the first glimpse into what's coming."
In Pokémon Go, players are tasked with going out into their real-world surroundings and using their smartphones to find Pokémon. Looking through the display on their devices, players can see animated Pokémon overlaid on the physical space directly in front of them. The challenge then is to throw a Pokéball and catch the Pokémon--all in augmented reality, of course.
Pokémon Go is hardly the first AR game. These apps, which mix the real world with digitally embedded augmentations, have been around for years, but in 2016, the technology has finally begun taking off. If you've ever used Snapchat, then you've already seen it. All those puppy faces, vomits of rainbow, and special effects lenses? That's all AR.
Over the past few years, AR has been the forgotten stepbrother of virtual reality, a technology that has been the talk of the tech world since Oculus VR was purchased by Facebook for $2 billion in 2014. As Oculus and its peers became media darlings, AR technology was seen by many as a mere bridge between our world and the far away, digitally-constructed lands we'd one day reach through VR headsets. But to many in tech, AR's promise was just as good, if not greater than, virtual reality's. Just look at the tech heavyweights.
Up in Washington, Microsoft skipped the VR fest and instead chose to build the HoloLens, which is an AR headset that promises to one day superimpose holograms over your daily life. Sure, Facebook bought Oculus and has gone all in on VR, with new features like 360-degree photos and videos added to its social network. But earlier this year, the company also acquired MSQRD, an AR startup that is a direct competitor to Snapchat's lenses. It was a deal that mattered enough to warrant Mark Zuckerberg pretending to be Iron Man.
Google is now fully on the VR bandwagon, but not before first going all in on AR years ago with Google Glass. The search giant failed to roll out Glass successfully, but years later, it has yet to give up on that piece of technology. Snapchat, meanwhile, is reportedly building a Glass clone. (As for Apple, well, the iPhone maker always waits for tech markets to mature before finally arriving fashionably late, so don't count Tim Cook & Co. out of the AR party just yet).
With the mass success of Pokémon Go, the veil has finally been lifted off of AR. Consumers should expect to see dozens more AR apps throughout 2016 and a market in full blossom by next year, many in tech say.
"Pokémon Go and Snapchat are the tip of the iceberg, and they will drive lots of AR app creation because they've proven the viability for the first time at scale," Pamplin says. "Let the gold rush begin."
So how did AR manage to springboard into the mainstream while VR has failed to catch on thus far? A handful of simple reasons.
For starters, AR has very few barriers to entry. As with Snapchat and Pokémon Go, users need nothing more than the smartphones they already own to partake. The simplest VR, such as Google Cardboard, requires that users attach their devices to a special kind of goggles, while more upscale levels of VR, like the Oculus Rift, require users to pay at least $600 for a new device--not to mention the heavy-duty PCs they'll need to power the gizmo.
"Almost everyone, even my 8-year-old niece, has a cell phone in their hands 24/7 now. Cell phone AR is a great first-use case," says Ashley Crowder, CEO of Vntana, a Los Angeles startup that specializes in hologram technology. "You're only going to see more and more of that."
Next is the content. With every new medium--whether newspapers, radio, VR, or AR--there is always a learning curve before content creators perfect their craft. While VR developers have only had the past couple of years to fiddle around with building 360-degree experiences, AR creators have been messing around with their tech since the launch of the earliest touchscreen smartphones nearly a decade ago. It certainly helps that Snapchat has a tremendous number of users and that Pokémon has a broad base of passionate fans, but if the AR were not up to par, neither of these experiences could be as successful as they are.
"Pokémon Go is a great example of an AR game that reminds us what we like about being human: discovery, interaction, immersion," says Carlos Rodriguez, vice president of marketing at Skully, a San Francisco startup that makes AR motorcycle helmets. "By blending fantasy with reality, this AR game encourages the exploration of--and appreciation for--the real world."
Finally and most importantly, AR's biggest advantage over VR is that it is inherently a more social experience. While VR requires that users hook themselves up to a headset and literally put on a visor to block of their environment, AR is an open experience that encourages users to go out, explore the world, and share what they find.
"You might be having the best time of your life in VR playing a car simulation and it's mind blowing, but a video of what that would look like is you on a sofa by yourself with maybe a partner next to you gawking at how ridiculous it seems," says Johnny Won, founder of Hyperstop, a tech consulting firm. "Everything that's AR is something that you can look at together, share, and create a dialogue with."
VR will have its day, most sources agree, but before that can happen, content must proliferate and barriers to entry must come down. In the meantime, the floodgates to AR have finally been broken and the potential for what's to come is limitless.
"Moving away from screen-based technologies like LCDs and OLEDs in your smartphones opens up a whole new world of visual experiences," says Edward Tang, founder and chief strategy officer of Avegant, a Bay Area startup that created the Glyph, a $699 screenless, head-mounted display. "When the day comes that you can see a Bulbasaur standing in front of you with your own eyes, people will have their minds blown."