'Pokémon Go' Will Be Augmented Reality's Killer App Pikachu Sticks the Landing

There has never been a truly great AR game. If that changes, it will change everything.

A tiny Pikachu from Pokemon Go toy next to a window with blurry city lights in the background.
Camilo Durán/Flickr.com

Augmented reality gaming has spent decades playing second fiddle to traditional video games, virtual reality, board games, and arguably, tag. Its killer app has stubbornly refused to arrive despite the hype Microsoft’s Hololens clips and the rumors about Google’s Magic Leap. But the first real chance to create and penetrate a market for virtual/meatspace gaming is finally about to arrive. It’s called Pokemon Go and it matters even if you don’t know Venomoth from Charmander.

It’s unusual for gaming companies to beat pornographers to the punch. The dirty, not-so-secret paradigm is that pornography drives visual tech adoption. But the porno powers that be seem more enamored with virtual reality, perhaps because it’s rather more discreet than its augmented cousin. Sure, commercial AR apps will mean doctors are better at suturing up our guts, but that’s not the path to mass market adoption. The path to people is through the stuff they like. If that doesn’t mean genitalia, it generally means gadgets.

Given that headset augmented reality technology still has some kinks to work out — and the “very high bar of what people are willing to wear on their heads,” as Columbia University computer scientist Steven Feiner pointed out in 2009 — let’s constrain ourselves to gaming with smartphones. Here, there are three AR archetypes: The first-person shooter, which couldn’t stick the landing as the Rescape project (a stock turned your phone into a gun, which you looked through to shoot your friends) but is currently enjoying a successful Indiegogo campaign as Father.io; the tabletop toy, like Anki Overdrive, which adds digital weaponry etc. to physical components; and the games that care about reality writ large, like map-dominator Ingress and animal fighter Pokémon Go.

In Nintendo’s grand tradition of revolutionary gaming experiences — Zelda, Mario, Pokémon — Pokémon Go could be huge. Or, in the less grand but no less Nintendo tradition, it could also be a gimmick that lands like a keg of napalm. Regardless of whether or not the game is actually fun, as AR proof-of-concept, you couldnt ask for something better. People are going to try it. Pokémon has amassive fanbase — the Go game trailer has been viewed more than 24 million times since September — and theres a fat slice of 90s-kid culture who still wants to be the very best but has been forced express our hopes in sultry jazz.

The fuzzy details of just how Pokémon Go will work are slowly coming into resolution. At the end of March, Pokémon Go developer Niantic Labs teased a bit of information on its blog:

>Certain wild Pokémon only appear in their native environments; for example, Water-type Pokémon may only appear near lakes and oceans.

Eggs and other special items such as Poké Balls can be acquired at PokéStops - located at interesting places such as public art installations, historical markers, museums and monuments.
Yes, there will be battles. Players will be encouraged to join one of three teams in order to compete over the ownership and prestige of Gyms. They will do this by placing their captured Pokémon in a friendly Gym or by battling with an opponent’s Pokémon in another team’s Gym. Gyms - just like PokéStops - are also found at real world locations.

If the minds behind Pokémon Go are smart, they’ll stripmine the Pokémon world and glue those gems to ours. There are some warning signs that Go might irk Pokémon fans, like having to repeatedly catch the same critter to evolve one and uncertain gym-battling scenarios. Should Pokémon Go fail to live up to the hype, the door will be open for monster-collecting AR games. Recognizing time, a GPS location, and proximity to other people aren’t extravagant demands for smartphone software, and they’re critical components of a game like Go. As the old-school handheld craze showed, catching them all taps into some deeply human weird urge to collect. We’re ready, AR is ready, all that’s left is for Pokémon Go to be good.

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