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Pokémon Go: Staring into the void - the void is ‘super-effective’

7 min, 13 sec read
15:30 PM | 5 August 2016
by Mon Yeu Chan
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As Pokémon Go continues to send people chasing their dreams of becoming the next Pokémon master, let’s pause and reflect on the reasons for this game’s success and what it may potentially mean for the future of AR and VR.

By now you would have heard of the Pokémon craze called ‘Pokémon GO’ - a smart phone augmented reality game that has surpassed the number of downloads of the mega dating app Tinder within just two days after its launch in the US. Stories of its success and its widespread influence on the population can easily be measured by the surge of internet memes and News stories of people wandering off cliffs to catch a certain rare Pikachu. From a marketing perspective, to say Pokémon Go is ‘super-effective’ may be a slight understatement.

However, one should not forget that Pokémon has always been a phenomenon. A similar, albeit tamer, Pokémania struck back in 2000 with the release of Pokémon cards where ‘several serious incidents of Pokémon crime’ occurred. The concerning criminal activity revolved around children stealing trading cards from one another in schools and even from high street shops. Clearly the need to ‘Catch ‘em all’ still persists today.

Of course, the success of Pokémon Go is very much due to the popularity of the Pokémon franchise and its international fan base, which has been quietly cultivated since 1996. Pokémon in itself is a brilliant and original idea. Humans known as Pokémon trainers have to catch these wild fictional creatures called ‘Pokémon’ with Poké Balls and then battle against each other to ‘be the very best’ Pokémon master. The Pokémon Company has capitalised on this concept for the past twenty years, releasing multiple games and television Anime series based on catching and battling these pocket monsters. With the official announcement of its 7th gen game in Pokémon Sun and Moon set to be released worldwide November 18, 2016 the Pokémon universe is continuing to grow.

However, whilst the Pokémon media franchise may be seen as a cultural juggernaut, one must wonder why Pokémon Go generated such a buzz. The answer is a combination of factors.

"Pokémon Go reifies the Pokémon adventure and makes it entertaining."

As mentioned, the popularity and widespread grip on the masses’ imagination and nostalgia have a role in the success of Pokémon Go. Additionally, the premise of catching and collecting all of the available wild Pokémon species is a perfect one for the Niantic-produced game that requires players to actively walk around (and to the horror of some, go outside…). It is through Go’s execution of combining walking and Pokémon catching that makes the world we live in a marginally more interesting one - a Pokémon world. When playing Pokémon Go, it feels real. Pokémon Go reifies the Pokémon adventure and makes it entertaining.

This inherent Pokémon quiddity is enhanced by the accessibility of Go. Before the release of Go, Pokémon had been a game series that was exclusive to Nintendo consoles (i.e. Game Boy, DS and Wii). It is the fact that Go is free to download and available on smart phones, which means people who do not have a 3DS (or any Nintendo consoles) can still play the game, even if it’s just for nostalgic curiosity. It’s a game that many grew up with and something that went past the standard gaming community. The key to Go’s success, therefore, lies in the User Interface and the accessibility of the game. Because of Nintendo’s innovative decision to invest in a foreign mobile gaming company, Pokémon Go became an international success - one that fared slightly better than Nintendo’s on-stage musical venture ‘Pokémon Live!’ back in 2000…

We should, however, not just accept the success of this new Pokémon game that has sent both children and adults on their destined path to become Pokémon masters, but ruminate on its success and what it means for the future, specifically for the gaming and tech future.

"Both VR and AR are emerging as new forms and mediums for entertainment"

Just as Pokémon Go made the Pokémon adventure real, it simultaneously made the prospects of AR (Augmented Reality) more promising and exciting. Whilst Niantic developed the AR mobile game Ingress back in 2012 the game didn’t stick out in the radar as much as Go. But because of Go’s success, it would not be too bold to consider Pokémon Go as a catalyst for AR. Indeed, the topic of VR vs AR has been a prevalent one amongst experts and my friends and I. Both VR and AR are emerging as new forms and mediums for entertainment and Go will bring AR into greater prominence.

Due to the ridiculous rate at which technology has progressed, widespread adoption of both technologies (AR and VR) may not be too far off. Companies like HTC and Oculus are continuing their development of VR headsets and Google has taken a different path, choosing to focus on mobile VR with Daydream instead of focusing on hardware. Other potential VR applications include VR medical training and exciting new VR announcements, such as a Star Wars VR film. But how does AR compare?

Unlike VR, which immerses you in a fabricated reality, AR blends the virtual and the real together, superimposing onto the real world digital images with which you can interact. There are already products available, such as Google Glass, with its hands-free advantage that could be further developed. Companies like Snapchat are also increasingly incorporating AR into their apps.

As John Hanke (CEO of Niantic) explains in a Financial Times article, ‘VR is cutting you off from the whole world’… and ‘not the same as connecting with people in real life’. Indeed, the sense of community that always came with the Pokémon fan base was brought to the fore by Go; through Pokémon Go’s interactive UI players are seeing the same Augmented Reality as millions across the globe. It is this sense of community that allowed the game to penetrate through the obscure and isolationist bubble of AR into a well-known international phenomenon.

Ricardo Diaz’ prognosis that ‘VR will gain ascendancy throughout 2016’ whilst AR will become ‘the dominant technology in our daily lives’ is an interesting one. His statement that ‘both VR and AR tinker with our reality - but AR enhances it, while VR diverts us from it’ certainly has some credence in Go (although perhaps it doesn’t take into account Pokémon trainers lost in caves). Vamien McKalin shares a similar view, positing that the advantage of AR is that it ‘does not completely take people out of the real world’. VR will be sold as an escape from life, whereas AR will be marketed as a sort-of futuristic lifestyle in the form of technological interfacing; imagine a virtual interface in which you could control lights/heating around the house to make living at home that little bit easier.

However, I find Sophie Charara’s ‘big question’ most insightful. The ‘big question’ relates as to ‘whether humans want what they experience in the future to be based in well, reality, or constructed, artificial and cut off’. Whilst she agrees with others that VR may be more an ‘at-home treat’ in relation to the more ‘social, everyday’ AR, her question is thought provoking. In the future would posterity continue to be social creatures or would mankind prefer to just exist in our VR headsets?

"As technology evolves, so will Pokémon."

To the Pokémon fan base and those not enthused as myself, I can guarantee that there will most certainly be another Pokémon peak in the future either in AR or VR (or perhaps both). As technology evolves, so will Pokémon. We find in Pokémon Go the first time that Pokémon has successfully extended out from the digital map of Kanto and into the real world. I would look forward to a VR Pokémon universe with visually stunning full-scale Pokémon and Kanto landscape dotted with gyms in which I could totally immerse myself. But I would certainly be missing the real sunshine that I’ve been enjoying as I take my morning walks playing Pokémon Go and seeing other wanna-be Pokémon masters checking their phones. As much as I love the Pokémon universe, I still can’t quite give up on the real world just yet…

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