We’ve seen Pokemon GO Before.

Unless you’re living under a rock, we are among the people following a new craze that had us walking into light poles, exploring small businesses, and taking photos in strange places. You may have heard stories of people hunting down Pokémon on their office desks, in hospital rooms, and even in bathrooms. One teenage girl even found a dead body while looking for a Pokémon. And, police in Missouri claimed that four suspected robbers use Pokemon to lure in victims.

Pokemon is a Nintendo franchise from the late 1990’s. It’s been dominant for nearly two decades, but the recent craze has more people actively engaging Pokemon in their daily routine than Twitter. So what is it? And why is it so popular?

In its simplest form, Pokémon Go uses your smartphone’s various sensors understand where and when you are in the game,  making Pokémon “appear” around you (on your phone screen) so you can go and catch them. Users move around the physical world to uncover Pokemon locations, before they can catch them. The genius behind the idea is to encourage the user to move around the physical world to catch Pokémon in the game. The fusing of  the real physical world interacting with the virtual world is known as “augmented reality.” But this isn’t a first for it’s developer, Niantic Labs.

Niantic, Inc. is a software development company best known for developing the augmented reality mobile games, Ingress and Pokémon Go. It was formed by Keyhole, Inc. founder John Hanke in 2010 as Niantic Labs, an internal startup at Google. It spun out of Google as an independent entity in October 2015, soon after Google’s announcement of its restructuring as Alphabet Inc.  Their first augmented reality mobile game, Ingress, followed in November 2012 as an invite-only Android app. It was opened to the public in October 2013 and and iOS version was released in July 2014.

Enter Pokemon GO

In September 2015, it was announced that Niantic is co-developing Pokémon GO with Nintendo and The Pokémon Company for iOS and Android. The following month, Niantic announced Google, Nintendo, and The Pokémon Company would invest $30 million ($20 million upfront, plus $10 million upon certain milestones).

On July 6, 2016, Pokémon GO was released in Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. on the iOS App Store and Google Play Store. From there, the game went crazy. In a span of days, daily activity surpassed Twitter in the US. News streams were flooded with stories of Pokemon in hospital rooms, toilets and under bridges.

 

The original game from Niantic Labs, Ingress, was rumored to be Google’s way of filling holes in the data for Google Earth and Maps. The gamification encourages users to carry the sensors embedded in their smartphones into areas of unclear or incomplete data. By allowing the game access to your sensor, and getting users to point their camera in certain directions, Google is rumored to have filled large amounts of data within months, and pushing Google’s data indoors. The spherical camera released in Android 4.2, gave Ingress the ultimate indoor mapping tool, your smartphone. Within months, Google was able to go indoors with Google Earth and Maps.

If the above is true, Niantic Labs’ move to a mainstream gaming brand like Pokemon helps the ‘geeky’ Ingress grow-up. No doubt the underlying platform is identical. Now powered with the Pokemon franchise, Google sensors have a larger audience to explore the world, gathering crucial data to power their empire. A very smart move by Google.

There is no doubt that Google will in time find more ways to monetize their global mapping of the physical world, and gaming is just the start. I’d expect that in alignment with the Google VR project, Daydream, we will soon have ways to explore the world in virtual reality, potentially in near real-time. The commercial applications of the technology are endless, and it positions Google to deepen their relationships in the data driven digital world.

When executed correctly, AR games tap into a sense of childhood imagination, and amazement, a short fall of most current platform games. Remember as a kid when you’d imagine you’re Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones, James Bond, or, maybe, a Ninja Turtle? I do! But we tend to tell ourselves we’ll ‘grow out’ of this behavior. AR games are great at doing the imagining for you, by augmenting the physical world around you, either with Pokémon or portals(Ingress) you can hack.

Given the upcoming release of the next Star Wars movie, I’d suggest we will see something from Disney to engage the millions of Star Wars fans. Either way, Augmented Reality will fuse the physical and virtual worlds.

Brett King’s new book, Augmented, dives into the fascinating world of Augmented Reality. It’s a great read if you’re curious to learn more about AR.

I’d love to hear from people where Augmented Reality is currently being developed or already in the market? What industries could it change?

© Scott Bales 2014. All Rights Reserved.