2016 has been an odd year. What seemed like the hottest news in tech just a few months ago, isn’t even a blip on the radar anymore. After a series of strongly criticized launches from Apple (even if the criticism was premature), an explosive disaster from Samsung, an impressive bounce back from Microsoft, and political chaos in United States, chances are you don’t even remember you spent the summer chasing after that Dratini in Pokemon Go.

But you should, if you’re one of the people who claimed Pokemon Go is proof that Augmented Reality will take the world by storm. What went wrong with that? It would be better to ask what went right.

Hindsight is 20/20

It’s easy to bash Niantic, the company behind Pokemon Go, today. But back in the summer you would have been hard pressed to find any naysayers. No one was questioning the success of the game or Niantic’s business model. Quite the contrary, media were so sure about the success of Pokemon Go, that they went on publishing advice for businesses piggybacking on the game’s popularity and hailing the dawn of AR everywhere, from gaming, to marketing, to archaeology.

And it was warranted. After all, a growth chart that made Candy Crush Saga look puny, usage that put Twitter to shame, and engagement that left even messaging apps far behind – all within weeks from launch – were not a coincidence. Niantic designed a game that’s inherently social – as you might have seen in the nearest park last summer – without asking you to link any social profiles or hand out a lot of data. They designed a game with close to no interaction that kept people in, without pushing a single notification. The use of Augmented Reality lead to pictures of Psyduck on the Golden Gate Bridge or Clefairy attending an anti-abortion protest flooding your social feeds. Niantic went against growth hacker’s common knowledge in every aspect and kept engagement at levels that made Snapchat jealous.

But first and foremost, what propelled the mind-bending growth of Pokemon Go was the Pokemon brand. And it is a beloved brand. In piece analyzing early success of the game, GameIndustry.biz quoted data showing that 94% of players had a previous experience with Pokemon in one form or another. Pokemon video games are among the most popular in history, with 279 million copies sold before the launch of Go. Pokemon spawned an almost 1,000 episodes long TV series (still running!), 19 movies, and tons upon tons of merchandise. When twenty-somethings of today reminisce their childhoods, Pokemon are there right next to Harry Potter. And nostalgia is a potent drug: when Google announced an AR Pokemon game as an April Fool’s joke in 2014, excitement exploded. So when it actually became reality, Go was sure to capture the attention of millions of Pokemon fans.

But then, it ran out of fuel.

Long way down

The stratospheric growth was not enough to let Pokemon Go reach escape velocity. The gravitational pull proved too strong – strong enough to make 79% players from peak time abandon the game by mid-September. The reasons for Go’s decline are many. Some say it’s just zeitgeist – the fever that made people go insane over a Vaporeon in Central Park could not have lasted longer than a few weeks. Others point towards an unsatisfying end game and with a good reason – Pokemon Go barely had any end game, mid-game, or – to be honest – any game at all. Much has also been said about how Niantic neglected its community, turning fans into haters. 

 

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I’m not here to argue for one cause or another. Pointing fingers is easy in hindsight. What I’m interested in is a look at how misguided people were to first paint Pokemon Go as the harbinger of Augmented Reality revolution only to write off viability of Augmented Reality gaming just a few weeks later, based on one game’s decline in popularity.

Let’s set things straight: Pokemon Go was never an AR game.

It is a wasted opportunity for an AR game. The only element of AR we have in Pokemon Go is no more than a growth hack. If a Pokemon appears nearby, you can see its 3D model through the lens of the phone’s camera. And sure, a photo of Squirtle in a public toilet looks funny on your Facebook timeline. A Snap with Psyduck next to a friend’s face has probably made a good few people smile – and download the app. But that’s it. The first version of EyeToy, a 12 year old camera controller for PlayStation 2, offered more sophisticated AR than this. In Pokemon, AR is a promotional gimmick to feed virality, not a gameplay element. But virality is time-constrained. A new meme replaces the previous one almost immediately, so when virality of Pokemon Go died, the whole gimmicky use of AR died with it. In September, 45% of players were using the AR mode less than half of the time when playing. Only 22% never turned it off. For most people it became nothing more than a drain on their batteries.

Putting AR back in hard

Augmented Reality is a powerful, potent technology. But if you’re going to use it as a gimmick, don’t bother. There are marketing or growth tricks you can use that are cheaper to develop, look better, and won’t kill your users’ batteries in two hours. Aside from being powerful and potent, AR is also complex and requires technical expertise and a lot of processing power.

And it can hardly even be called AR if the user experience is not grounded in the interaction between the interface and the physical world. Just look at the most successful uses of AR in consumer products: Snapchat with its filters and faceswap and Google Translate, able to read and translate text from the camera on the fly. Or let’s take the most promising ones: Magic Leap and Microsoft HoloLens – upcoming devices that will use AR as the primary interface.

The common denominator for all these products is that they blend the digital part into reality – not just put it next to reality. With that in mind, think about how much more interesting AR would have been in Pokemon if they made it part of gameplay. If the 3D model of a pokemon was not an overlay on the screen, but an element of the environment. If a pokeball could bounce of a table. If Magikarp could jump out of the water. Actual mechanics could be created around how the game elements interact with the physical world.

Neat, right?

Now, think about how much longer Niantic would have needed to develop that. Optical recognition and physics would be way more sophisticated than any existing element of Pokemon Go. And then there’s the edge cases: bad lighting, glitches, hundreds of different cameras to support and so on. It’s no coincidence that companies behind the products I mentioned above are two technology behemoths with nearly infinite resources and two startups awash in venture capital: Magic Leap and Snapchat have raised more than $4 billion combined. One of very few examples of successful, quality AR apps that are not backed by companies with more money than they can spend is Star Charts – but it’s also very narrow in scope.

If that scares you off taking on an Augmented Reality project… it probably should. If you’re looking into AR as a quick attention grab – something your users might post to Twitter and then quickly forget, you don’t need to worry. You’ll find plenty of tools to do that easily. But if you think of AR as an actual component of the user experience, just remember that AR is hard. It’s complex. It takes a lot of expertise and time. If you forget that, you might end up like Pokemon Go – with what was supposed to be a flagship feature turning out as a gimmick nobody needs nor wants. 

 

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About Wojciech Borowicz

Wojciech is a regular contributor to the Mokriya blog. He reads more than he writes, but in both cases it’s mostly about how technology and interfaces are changing: us and themselves.