A few weeks ago, it was easy to look at the market projections for augmented reality (AR) and consider them wildly outlandish. Now, with the success of Pokemon Go hitting maniacal levels, they’re appearing a little more … well, realistic.
Earlier this year, the Silicon Valley-based analysis firm Digi-Capital released a report in which it projected that the global market for AR – in which computer graphics and animation are overlaid onto the real world via a display or screen – would hit US$90 billion by 2020, from virtually zero today.
The firm also predicted that the market for virtual reality (VR), which differs from AR by placing users entirely within computer-generated environments, will grow over the same time frame, but only to $30bn.
The discrepancy in predictions was puzzling given the states of the two technologies.
VR has already largely arrived, with Facebook-owned Oculus and HTC releasing their respective Rift and Vive headsets this spring. They’ll be joined by Sony and its PlayStation VR later this year.
The existing headsets have received positive reviews, but neither has had a breakout hit yet. Still, developers and users alike are excited about what the future will bring, both in terms of entertainment and enterprise applications.
AR, meanwhile, had been inhabiting the space between vapourware – a promising technology that never actually materialises – and full-on failure.
The most high-profile effort so far has been Google Glass, a set of sensor-enabled spectacles released by the search company in 2013. Their utility proved questionable and they provoked privacy concerns, which is why wearers unfortunately became known as “glassholes”.
Looking forward, Microsoft is expected to deliver its Hololens AR headset in the next year, but with the developer version priced at $3,000 it’s still an open question as to whether the device will be within reach of the mainstream when and if it actually becomes a reality.
The Florida-based start-up Magic Leap, meanwhile, is also developing its own headset, with a possible release this year, although its technology promises far more realism since the images will be projected directly onto the wearer’s eyeballs. This “mixed reality” sounds far out, and it’s certainly one of those that’s going to be hard to believe until it arrives.
AR, too, was a pipe dream — until last week, that is, when Pokemon Go came out of nowhere to become a full-blown phenomenon.
The game, which has players explore the real world in search of cartoon monsters that they can “capture” using their phones, quickly became the No 1 app in both the Android and Apple stores. It reportedly has more than 20 million daily active users in the United States, which is more than Twitter by some estimates.
The San Francisco-based developer Niantic has been forced to hold off on international releases, including the UAE, until it can figure out how to handle the unexpectedly high server demand.
Nintendo, which co-owns the Pokemon brand with two other companies, is benefiting greatly from the bonanza. Pokemon Go, which is free to download but offers purchasable in-game upgrades, is earning an estimated $1m a day despite its limited availability. The Japanese company’s stock has risen 43 per cent so far this week as a result.
Suddenly, the pipe dream of augmented reality has become a burgeoning jackpot of actual reality.
Growth to $90 billion in the next few years still won’t be a slam dunk, though, and Pokemon Go’s success above other previous AR efforts proves it.
It’s a hit not because of gimmicky technology but because it smartly combines game elements that people have enjoyed for ages. It encourages active exploration and socialisation – stories are abounding of how Pokemon Go players are making new friends as they congregate in common locations in search of the monsters.
The game also delivers rewards for succeeding in the form of Poke Balls and other unlockable goods. Players thus have incentives to keep playing.
All told, it’s a well-constructed game that simply incorporates new technology in a novel way. In that sense, it’s far ahead of many of the glorified AR and VR tech demos that preceded it.
There will inevitably be clones, but for AR – and VR – to rise to the heights predicted, software creators are going to have to come up with similarly ingenious takes on tried-and-true formulas. The underlying technology, while impressive, isn’t going to cut it alone.
Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species