With all the hype about virtual reality systems like the Oculus Rift, Gear VR, Vive, and PlayStation VR over the last year, it’s been tempting to think that the technology represents the immediate future of entertainment—although analysts expect the augmented reality market will be three times larger than virtual reality.
Pokémon Go, the sudden and massive hit from Nintendo and Niantic Labs, is threatening that media narrative.
By becoming nearly as popular as Twitter on Android in just over a week, and by inspiring more than 3,600 people to join a Pokémon Go crawl in San Francisco later this month, the game is one of the biggest things to ever happen to AR, a technology that overlays a digital world on top of the real world, often through mobile devices like smart phones. The scale of its success also far outstrips anything that’s yet happened with consumer virtual reality.
As my colleague Mark Wilson put it, the technology behind Pokémon Go was already powering Niantic’s Ingress, a location-based AR game that a small number of people were incredibly passionate about. When you married that tech with Pokémon, a game and some might even say a lifestyle that meant a lot to millions of people, you had the makings of a monster success.
"I think it’s a recipe," said Julian Reyes, a VR designer and producer at the media company Fusion. "These guys had Ingress before, and what they were missing [was] the staple of our generation. Everyone loved Pokémon growing up."
Added Reyes, the marriage of Ingress and Pokémon "just fit AR like a glove."
That doesn’t mean, though, that it’s bad for virtual reality.
"It’s all one massive push, these [interactive] experiences," said Reyes. "You can imagine Pokémon Go in a VR headset, or where a Charmander is running through your street, and it’s in that augmented sense, but using VR. I wouldn’t say people should differentiate VR and AR."
In fact, said Tim Merel, founder and CEO of Digi-Capital, which predicts that AR will be a $90 billion market by 2020—while the VR market will be worth $30 billion—the success of Pokémon Go is a major step forward in the mainstream advancement of both AR and VR.
"It’s particularly significant as it has mainstreamed mobile AR/VR with a well-loved brand targeted at a huge natural community," Merel said. "In many ways, that is more meaningful than which of AR or VR is now more significant in the public consciousness, as mobility will drive the installed base for both technologies."
On the other hand, while it’s true that you can get a VR experience for next to nothing using something like Google Cardboard, more sophisticated virtual hardware costs $99 (for Gear VR) and up, with Oculus Rift coming in at $599 and Vive $799—not to mention the expensive PCs required to run them.
That means that a game like Pokemon Go, which costs nothing to play and works on just about any iOS or Android device, is likely to bring AR into the public consciousness in a way that no VR experience has yet been able to do.
"Our data validates how the early success of Pokémon Go speaks to how well the game translates to augmented reality," said Assaf Henkin, the senior vice president of Brand Intelligence Solutions at Amobee. "Nintendo [and] Pokémon had the foresight to bring back a wildly popular game in a modern user experience. They have made augmented reality far more accessible to a general audience than [VR] which requires a significant startup cost in terms of purchasing equipment."
That sentiment was echoed by Peter Hamilton, the CEO of Tune, a mobile marketing analytics company.
"The tipping point for VR and AR has been right in front of us," Hamilton said, speaking of the power of mobile device ecosystems like the iPhone and Apple’s App Store. "I’m honestly amazed that we hit our first widespread adoption through AR before VR. I had always assumed one of the console players would release the first hit game that ignited the game playing community on VR, but I was wrong. The fact that Pokemon Go was able to make this leap [forward for AR] only speaks to the power of the mobile device."
For this part, Reyes cautions against thinking that Pokémon Go is the first major success for augmented reality. After all, he pointed out, millions of people have already been using Snapchat’s AR filters—"everyone’s seen at least one picture [of a friend] with dog ears."
In the end, though, the lesson here is that the big winner in all this is neither AR nor VR. It’s the devices making the game’s success possible.
"If you are thinking about diving into the files of VR or AR," Hamilton said, "start with the mobile device that is already in the hands of billions and work outward."