Gotta catch AR: How Pokémon GO revitalized augmented reality

A brief analysis of Pokémon GO’s unprecedented success

The premise is simple:  see, throw, catch and presto – the most popular free app of 2016 (possibly of all time), Pokémon GO, was born from Niantic, catapulting augmented reality (AR) into infamy. For those outside the poké-alypse in early July, the highly anticipated AR app, Pokémon GO, became available and was an instant success, creating general bedlam as droves of people took to the streets searching for the elusive creatures.

Complete with a catchy theme song, Gotta Catch ‘Em All, Pokémon is a popular Japanese import. The app embodies what every fan of the 20-year franchise has dreamed of doing; emulating the show’s protagonist catching Pokémon, creatures that live in the wild. When prompted, holding up your mobile device will activate the augmented reality superimposing and integrating the animated Pokémon onto the real world’s environment for interaction and capture.

So why has this AR experience gone viral and retained longevity? This is not the first AR app. Niantic’s, first app, Ingress and EA’s Majestic also merged digital technology with reality. More notably, printed media has been incorporating augmented reality for years, as far back as 2009. For example, in 2013 The Toronto Star printed a fully interactive Layar edition and Ikea employed AR in their catalogue to help customers see how furniture would look in their homes. Blippar has had numerous successful AR campaigns, which blended reality and digital elements, and yet Pokémon GO eclipses these successes.

Augmented reality and the consumer experience has always fascinated me, which is why my Masters’ research focused on AR’s integration with printed media and its impact on advertising. Up until now what has always been lacking in the augmented reality experience is the payoff. Augmented reality requires investment, a mobile device to display the triggered content, the specific brand of AR app to access the content, and cellular data or wi-fi to view the content. That’s a lot of work, time, and sometimes cost, to simply watch a Youtube video that echoes everything already on the piece. Not only that, but AR is usually employed in products with a limited lifespan, such as newspapers and advertisements, items rarely kept, even for AR’s novelty appeal. Unimaginative AR interactions that direct consumers to equally passive or ignorable media that do not titillate their synapses discourages reuse and adds an unneeded barrier of complexity. For example, the ironic 2014 Ikea catalogue humorously named the bookbookTM juxtaposed print’s benefits against technology’s.

Pokémon GO is prolific because, even despite glitches, it benefits society as a whole. AR in print has almost always been employed to sell a product or service that appeals to a target audience and, while that can be effective, AR has never been leveraged to benefit everyone. Even though Pokémon has a committed fanbase, the app’s hype has popularized Pokémon GO amongst all demographics. In the quest to “catch them all”, the app gameifies exercise, rallies the community, and ignites discovery and tourism, as users explore new areas of their neighbourhoods. Enterprising businesses and public services are using the app to promote themselves by incentivizing purchase or supporting social causes, and new businesses are creating companion products and services.

Pokémon GO has radically shifted AR’s position in the market. Ubisoft plans to implement AR games based on their assets and the app has done so well analysts are questioning the commercial viability of the technology industry golden child, virtual reality. The daily dynamism of the AR experience in Pokémon GO is what distinguishes it from all pre-existing examples in the industry. Even when the hysteria ends, as the Pokémon character list and app features expand they will reel back in both the committed and delinquent user. The app has proven tactics which employ a social benefit and collective immersion appear to be the most effective way to monetize an AR experience. To overcome the novelty of the technology, transformative campaigns where AR complements the message and benefits the user will be what makes AR essential in future advertising. Perhaps exhibitions, education, and areas of environmental design may prove to be better channels for AR than print editorial and ads. The question is: AR we ready?