Tech companies, futurists, and hardcore gamers talk a big game when it comes to virtual reality and augmented reality, but there have been few signs of real success in either space, thanks to insanely high price points, and isolating, non-social experiences. But, in a matter of three days, Pokémon Go has completely obliterated those barriers, and is poised to slingshot augmented reality past virtual reality, the technology of the future since the early ‘60s.
The cultural and economic impact of the game is already shining through since its Wednesday evening launch. Data from the app marketing tracker Sensor Tower shows the app made it to No. 1 on the app store in less than five hours, and is already grossing more money from in-app purchases than long-established rival games such as Game of War, Clash Royale, and Clash of Clans.
Anyone who has been on social media in the past few days probably didn’t even need those stats to validate its popularity. Friends and family all over the country are sharing photos of the Pokémon they find in their office, in police stations, and in the White House.
So what does Pokémon Go have that no other augmented reality game or virtual reality headset have? It’s cheap, social, and nostalgic.
Inexpensive Entry Point
Our notions of augmented reality in the past have been really high tech. Imaginations went wildly overboard when the first Google Glass concept video came out and when Microsoft first showed off Minecraft in HoloLens. But as people started actually using these devices, that hype was tampered by a compromised product that has a high price.
But Pokémon Go shows that the future of AR doesn’t have to be a clunky, awkward-looking headset, it can be our regular smartphones. Whereas HoloLens and Google Glass aren’t even consumer products yet, two thirds of Americans already own a smartphone according to data from the Pew Research Center.
Nintendo could have conceivably made a virtual reality Pokémon game, but at $800 for the HTC Vive and $600 for the Oculus Rift (plus a $1,000 PC to run either headset), VR just isn’t accessible yet.
Pokémon Brings People Together
One virtual reality headset has been more accessible than the rest — Google Cardbaord. At $15, Google’s makeshift cardboard system has made it to more hands than any other system, at least 5 million to be precise. Yet, there hasn’t been a breakout game like Pokémon Go yet for cardboard.
That’s probably because players in virtual reality are isolated into a separate world away from the people we want to hang out with in real life. Pokémon Go allows friends and even strangers to get together to battle and catch Pokémon. No one is going to be motivated to stand in a field with a bunch of other cardboard users stumbling around blindly.
By decoupling the concept of augmented reality from the headset, Pokémon Go has made the most social and accessible AR or VR game to date.
Sweet, Sweet Nostalgia
Although no one paid attention, games almost identical to the Pokémon Go concept have been made in the past. Parallel Kingdom MMO placed dragon-fighting fantasy characters into gamers’ living rooms, and Zombie Run made players physically run away from zombies chasing them down their own neighborhood streets (the developer has since abandoned the project).
But Pokémon Go has the upper hand in nostalgia and brand recognition. As of 2015, the franchise has sold more than 279 million units to make it by far one of the most successful games of all time. And Pokémon Go is harking back to the original Red, Blue, Green, and Yellow editions, which combined sold 45 million units from their release in 1996 and 1998.
It’s really the perfect storm of technology and culture that gives AR a new found advantage over VR.