Although it might feel like just the blink of an eye, this month marks the one year anniversary of the release of Pokemon Go. The Augmented Reality (AR)-based phenomenon broke all records for mobile apps and managed to earn five Guinness World Records in the process, prompting many to declare it the Watershed moment for immersive technologies. Niantic is celebrating this milestone with a surprisingly low-key in-game event, giving users a chance to augment their Pokedex with a Pikachu sporting Ash’s famous baseball cap. Fans also got the chance to enjoy a real-world Pokemon Go experience in the form of ‘Pokemon Go Fest’ in Chicago, allowing them to access exclusive in-game content and achievements.
Before Pokemon Go burst onto the scene in July 2016, technology was mostly confined to underwhelming iPad apps and unwanted add-ons to camera software on smartphones. AR has been floating on the edges of the public consciousness for years now, but it didn’t have that ‘killer app’ to really push it over the edge into the mainstream. The various types of hardware required to produce and view high-end AR and VR experiences are generally widely available to both developers and the general public, however content really is key. Up until Pokemon Go there wasn’t an IP with enough star-power to pull in a large audience, let alone keep them! Even after a year, there are still an estimated 5 million active daily users of the app, and people are beginning to realise the power of the technology they carry in their pockets.
Snapchat sends AR viral
Several high-profile social media applications are beginning to incorporate AR into their user experience. Snapchat was the first mainstream social site to begin utilising AR to not only augment the user’s voice and appearance, but also their environment. The amusing, shareable images and videos were an instant hit, and many snaps created using the technology went viral. It didn’t take long for rivals Facebook and Instagram to launch their own versions of Snapchat’s flagship feature, in the form of AR Studio and Face Filters respectively. While this initially prompted backlash and accusations of copying from some, it’s undeniable that the more accessible AR technology is, the faster people will begin to adopt it into their daily lives. These sort of apps really could be the catalyst for mainstream adoption of immersive technologies.
Apple is shaking up the AR scene
The VR and AR industries have been waiting for an offering from Apple for some time now, especially after news broke of all the patents and hiring that was going on behind the scenes. With the release of ARKit, Apple has opened up the world of Augmented Reality development. Projects that once took boutique companies months and thousands of dollars can now be done by someone working out of their bedroom within a matter of days, if not hours. In fact, some people have predicted that this could end up killing off a whole generation of AR studios. There have already been some great examples of people using the technology, and happily these projects cover a lot of different industries; everything from gaming, to architectural visualisation, art, world-building and entertainment.
As is often the way with Apple products, the base technology in ARKit has been around for a few years. However, Apple is able to take those existing ideas and turn them into something great. The Apple brand is powerful, and lends a certain weight to new and emerging technologies. ARKit will be available on Apple devices running iOS 11, opening the platform up to a huge potential user-base. Could this be the starting point for full AR adoption?
And this is the issue: members of the public who may not have a great deal of experience with higher-end technology are able to get their hands on Augmented Reality demos with minimum effort and understanding. They literally just have to reach into their pocket. In contrast, Virtual Reality (VR) can be much harder to access. The high-end fully immersive experiences usually require a high powered PC, with a complicated set-up and a large financial investment. And for some, just putting a headset on is a step too far. VR is still widely considered to be a technology that’s out of reach to everyday consumers.
Ease of use is often important for adoption of new technology, and this is an undeniable advantage that AR offers over VR. Augmented Reality is also able to incorporate social elements with ease – just look at how Snapchat has turned it into a fully sharable experience – whilst VR has been criticised for being isolating. Also, by losing your eyes and ears you become confined to a limited space, and while that does mean you can be fully transported to any environment, it also removes the ability to access this sort of experience on the move.
So does this mean that Augmented Reality will kill off Virtual Reality? Well, no. AR and VR are two separate mediums, and conflating the two does both a disservice. Both have their own distinct advantages, disadvantages, and will possibly end up with their own distinct user bases. VR is unparallelled for transporting users to other words, and delivering experiences that you simply wouldn’t be able to access without the technology. AR is much more user-friendly, easily accessible, and available to use anywhere and everywhere. They’re not the same thing, and that’s ok: they don’t have to be. What really matters is knowing when to use each one, and how.