Is Pokémon Go Really a Watershed Moment for AR?

David Gratton David Gratton

Pokémon Go became a worldwide phenomenon seemingly overnight. Within days of its launch in the United States, CBC was calling me asking, “Is this a watershed moment in AR?” Well, the numbers certainly support that claim: Pokémon Go earns a reported $1 million a day from in-app purchases, and has garnered over 15 million downloads to date.

Drowzee on the Work at Play couch.The popularity of Pokémon Go will no doubt lead to imitators—which is great for AR innovation.

Drowzee on the Work at Play couch.
The popularity of Pokémon Go will no doubt lead to imitators—which is great for AR innovation.

If nothing else, Pokémon Go is surely a turning point for geocaching—over 9.5 million daily active users harness the power of GPS to scour the streets for local Pokémon—but I stop short of declaring the game a watershed moment for AR.

Pokémon Go uses my phone’s GPS to identify key markers (PokeStops, gyms, and Pokémon) quite successfully. If I stand near water I’m likely to find more water Pokémon, but this is only a simple, rudimentary manifestation of AR technologies.

Pokémon Go does not understand a building as my home, it can’t recognize the walls that form my room, or interpret an object as my desk. It fails to grasp the full extent of its environment and so, fails to enhance my physical world in a truly meaningful way. A truer AR experience would have Pokémon hiding behind the bushes near my house, or under my desk.

Then there’s the form factor. Right now the smartphone is really not an ideal device for delivering AR experiences. It’s handy, but it’s clunky and obtrusive, as it limits your field of view to the small screen your smartphone provides. By now, we’ve all seen Pokémon players waving their phones around searching for Pokémon on the street, but most of the hardcore players eventually turn off the AR feature that necessitates this behavior. This element of AR—bringing digital stuff into the real world—isn’t really needed to find and capture Pokémon.

All that said, Pokémon Go is still a triumph. It gets my children walking about 5k per day without parental motivation. The generation that grew up playing Pokémon on their Game Boy can now spend their coffee break playing casual Pokémon Go sessions with their co-workers. Pokémon Go is a welcome reprieve from the daily grind.

The success of Pokémon Go is sure to inspire imitators. Will these imitators also push deeper with meaningful AR features? If so it may indeed lead to real innovation in the space, and prove itself as a legitimate tipping point for AR.

Cross posted to Medium