Technology & Science

Pokemon Go brings augmented reality to the mainstream

Augmented reality games and applications have been around for a while, but the massive overnight success of Pokemon Go might be the start of a development boom for the technology.

Nostalgia combined with accessible technology makes Nintendo's new app an overnight smash

A virtual Pidgey appears in the augmented reality game Pokemon Go. The latest in Nintendo's popular franchise spread like wildfire around the world, boosting its market cap by $7.5 billion US. (Sam Mircovich/Reuters)

In a little under a week, Pokemon has taken over the world — again.

Pokemon Go, a new mobile app for iOS and Android phones, is the latest craze from Nintendo, featuring creatures that you catch in the wild and train to spar with your rivals.

Over the past 20 years, Pokemon has been a mainstay of popular culture in the form of video games, animated films, action figures and a collectible card game.

But Pokemon Go scratches a very specific itch — become a Pokemon trainer yourself! — and places fan-favourites like Pikachu and Bulbasaur in the wild via augmented reality (AR) technology.

Pokefans young and old are gathering into parties and venturing forth in the millions in the U.S., Australia and New Zealand. It's not even officially out in Canada yet, but already one can find groups of amateur trainers across the country who have downloaded the app via unofficial workarounds.

The app has become so popular so quickly that over the weekend, reports emerged of people injuring themselves while walking outside, their eyes glued to their phones.

More sensational stories include a girl finding a dead body while searching for Pokemon, and someone placing a Clefairy on the doorstep of the Westboro Baptist Church. (The church later responded, calling the Pokemon a "sodomite.")

It's being hailed by some critics and analysts as the first big augmented reality experience.

'A watershed moment for AR'

"I think Pokemon Go has definitely put augmented reality on the map," says Stephanie Lee, a freelance writer for tech blog Lifehacker. "It's such a widely recognizable brand and franchise that's been around for 20 years."

This comes despite the fact that the technology used in the game — location tracking with GPS, and digital images overlaid on what your phone's camera sees — isn't terribly new.

The game's had its share of troubles at launch, as well. Gaming and tech writers described being regularly disconnected from developer Niantic's servers as it struggled to cope with the volume of new players. They also noted that most of its features are directly lifted from Niantic's last AR game Ingress, which launched in 2013 and has enjoyed a smaller, though dedicated fanbase.

Mobile Syrup's Patrick O'Rourke explains how to play Pokemon Go, a new mobile app by Nintendo that's exploded in popularity over the weekend 0:57

But it was the marriage of the technology with an instantly recognizable brand and concept that brought people outside in droves hunting for their favourite monsters.

"I've had people messaging me saying they haven't played video games since they were 10 or 11 years old playing the original Pokemon on the Game Boy trying out Pokemon Go," Patrick O'Rourke, a columnist for Canadian tech site MobileSyrup, told CBC News.

"It's a watershed moment for AR, I'd say."

Cheaper, more accessible than VR headsets

Richard Lachman, an associate professor who teaches digital media and storytelling at Ryerson University, says Pokemon Go came at just the right time to spark wider interest in AR.

"Even if you don't exactly know what augmented reality is, you've heard the word before," he says. "Only three or four years ago, only early adopters or super-tech people would know what that is or engage with it directly. The time was right."

You might already be using it, even if you haven't heard the term before: Snapchat's wildly popular face swap feature and other filters add digital overlays to your real-life face in much the same way that Pokemon Go plants monsters onto your smartphone's screen.

Aspiring Pokemon trainers search for digital monsters roaming outside the CBC broadcast centre in Toronto 0:58

That accessibility might make augmented reality widely popular more quickly than virtual reality, the darling of the enthusiast technology press. The difference between the two? Many people already have a smartphone with AR capabilities, while VR needs an expensive headset and powerful PC.

"A lot of tech companies have had a super-difficult time conveying what VR or AR means on the user's side," says Jeff Bakalar, a tech and games columnist for CNET. "[Pokemon Go] is that sort of gateway experience where the everyman can be like, 'Oh, I get it now.'"

Copycats, knock-off apps inevitable

The bigger question for developers looking to cash in on the Pokemon wave is whether more people will try out other AR experiences that don't involve catching Pokemon.

​"Pokemon is a pervasive pop culture thing. Everyone kind of knows what it is, if you're under 40," Bakalar told CBC News. "But I also think there is a certain quality, a certain novelty this game has that transcends the notion of whether or not you're a strict Pokemon fan."

Video game critic Matt Peckham on latest version of the popular Japanese franchise, which has claimed top spot in the Apple iTunes store in less than a week 4:54

Its early success guarantees that some developers will try to follow the trend, whether their results are good or not, he says. "It would be shocking if there wasn't a barrage of AR copycat games that come out right after this," he says.

"If you're a mobile developer and you have any notion of what AR is, you are doing that now."

Beyond the inevitable knock-offs, the boom might inspire newly converted fans of AR to try out existing apps.

Tom's Guide has a list of well-received applications, from QR Code scanners (remember those?) to Monocle, which slaps Yelp restaurant reviews onto locations on your smartphone's camera.

It remains to be seen, however, whether Pokemon Go will be a long-term success for Nintendo. Its first mobile game, Miitomo, made a positive first impression when it launched in March, but quickly faded in popularity after users ran out of things to do.

Future mobile games set in Nintendo's Fire EmblemAnimal Crossing and Legend of Zelda series are currently in the works.

About the Author

Jonathan Ore

Senior Writer

Jonathan Ore is the Senior Writer for CBC Radio Digital in Toronto. He's also covered arts & entertainment, technology and the video game industry for CBC News. You can find him on Twitter @Jon_Ore.