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VR vs. AR’s Gym Leader

Coming back from almost two weeks off straight into a column isn’t the best way to get back into the swing of things. I mean, for a start what is there for me to talk about? I rather relished being out of the loop for a bit and letting the world of virtual reality (VR) pass me by. For those two weeks (minus the first day of Google I/O where I actually was working) I have very much tried to keep anything VR at arms length. Therefore, by natural extension it’s a bit difficult to suddenly step back in and have an opinion about something worth sharing.

For once I needed to. I really, really needed to just for my own sake. Step away from everything, recharge the ol’ batteries and just concentrate on me. I believe people call this concept a “holiday”.

The success of this time off is rather difficult to quantify. I did, mostly, succeed in stepping out of things. Unfortunately when you stop thinking of some things you start thinking about other things. And on a hot night five or so days back a train of thought chugged from ‘It’s Funny How Your Hair Is Kinda Going Gray’ into ‘You’re Getting Old Cross’, rapidly accelerated into ‘Well, You’ve Probably Less Years Ahead Than Behind Junction’ before it spectacularly derailed somewhere between ‘Soon To Be Deadman’s Curve’ and ‘Oh God, Oh God, Oh God I Don’t Want To Die’ in fact I managed to freak myself out sufficiently to put the kaibosh on any actual sleep since.

Super.

It’s been during these last long nights as I’ve tried to stitch back together my shredded sense of relaxation where my eyes were slowly tempted back onto social media to see what other people were discussing about VR and also augmented reality (AR). As I’m sure you know AR is somewhat in the ascendency in recent months, certainly a lot of what has been said by the big players has revolved around AR and it’s future in some way.  Now depending on who you listen to on the likes of Twitter, this is a sign that VR is over (yes, again *sigh*) and that AR has proven itself to be the leader that will revolutionise the world.

There are two important things to note here: The first is that it’s amazing how many people who are saying AR is more successful than VR just so happen to work with AR. Which, I hasten to add, is not me saying that AR is not being successful. Nor is it somehow sour grapes, after all VRFocus probably talks about AR and its developments more than anybody else. At least that’s what the ‘breakdown of the industry’ reports that seem to show up in my inbox every six or so months have said previously.

The second thing is that people will, when giving an example of the success, turn to AR’s talisman and ticket to ‘the mainstream’ as a way to prove it. Unfortunately it’s not something educational, as we’re seeing with Google Expeditions’ forthcoming update. Neither is it something clever with visualisation in industry or its utilisation in business or research.Held aloft like a shining trophy is always, always Pokémon GO.

There’s just one problem, and it’s been bugging me for a while. Pokémon GO is… well, if we’re honest about it it’s a bit crap isn’t it? Considering what AR can do, even now, and what the game should do based on its history; what it amounts to is the game knowing where you are and vaguely getting what a flat surface is. The game has no idea of context or scale. How many images of Pokemon have you seen on social media, where someone’s sitting in a stadium or something watching a sports event. Either the Pokemon is weirdly out of place or whoops, there’s a giant Charmander stomping all over your favourite team.

I’m possibly oversimplifying here, but whilst your geographical location matters, what your location actually contains does not seem to. AR. It’s in the name. It’s augmenting reality, it’s putting a layer of content over the world but in other uses of AR that we see that the augmentation understands what the world around it is. Pokémon GO’s AR feels thin in comparison, like someone has put a piece of tracing paper angled in a certain way over what you can see. It makes what the reality underneath feel oddly irrelevant. The difference between this and, say, what Snapchat are doing is that this is magic, but it feels more of a parlour trick.

In all honesty if it was anything other than Pokémon would it have been a success? If it didn’t have that social and cultural hook. Take that away and what’s the difference between it and the likes of Captain Blimey or other similar game. In an odd sense of timing as I was contemplating writing this last night someone else was having similar thoughts.

You’ll never guess who…

I admit to laughing a bit at the coincidence. Myself and Palmer Luckey are on the same side in a VR vs article. See, it can happen!

Let me wrap things up by just saying that Pokémon GO‘s role in AR is important, and will continue to be in it’s history going forward. But when you look at what it is and take away the plucking of your nostalgic heartstrings it probably shouldn’t be credited as much as it is being. It’s not opened the front door to a shining new technological age, others will do that in far more impressive ways.

But that’s not to say it hasn’t at least shown the world its address.