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Augmented Reality and the Product Impact of Pokémon Go

Pokémon Go took over the digital and IRL worlds this weekend. I’ve been writing about, making or dealing in software for many years and I can’t recall a single product that’s had this universal reach, so quickly. When a trend jumps from Reddit to Time, it must be big.

The industry will be talking about this game and this weekend for years to come.

The Reddit pic below illustrates how this game has brought people together. I was struck by many moments like this yesterday walking around Lake Merritt, often involving my precocious son getting into the mix of other players – packs of teenagers, nature guides, strangers.

Pokemon Go players

Trending Reddit picture. Pokémon Go bringing all the people together – blue hair, big hair, no hair.

The players are easy to spot, particularly if they exhibit more than one of the following characteristics:

  • Phone tethered to battery backup (ultimate giveaway)
  • Multiple people on their phones at the same time, together, looking and walking
  • People in odd places looking up, around, circling near something of moderate significance – an architecturally-known building, benches, murals, sculptures, plaques, landmarks

How did we get here?

The game has many performance problems, perhaps due to unexpected and unprecedented load. And there are some gameplay and interaction flaws, but largely – it’s pure magic. We think a few factors came together to make this happen.

1. Brand.
The brand awareness, love and familiarity with the characters and game set up a mammoth built in audience of interest. But notoriety doesn’t guarantee success.  If it sucked, Go could have been the Point Break of games. Instead, it’s the Force Awakens.

point break

Unlike the new Point Break, Pokémon Go builds on the brand to do something new and magical. Bodhi!

2. Data.
Good products are hard. The team behind the app, Niantic, are former Google Maps/Keyhole geniuses who’ve spent the past several YEARS laying the foundation of location-based content for the app. Great products combine a unique soul or identity with the right mix of features and experience. Pokémon is a powerful brand. But the hard work that went into the platform is significant.

In the early days of Ingress, Niantic formed a beginning pool of portal locations for the game based on historical markers, as well as a data set of public artwork mined from geo-tagged photos on Google. “We basically defined the kinds of places that we wanted to be part of the game,” Hanke said. “Things that were public artwork, that were historical sites, that were buildings with some unique architectural history or characteristic, or a unique local businesses.” – Niantic’s John Hanke, on Mashable

Augmented Reality brings real world spots into the gameplay of Pokémon Go

Augmented Reality brings real world spots, like Oakland’s famed Cafe Van Kleef, into the gameplay of Pokémon Go

3. Smart Beta.
Niantic used an actual product, Ingress, with low expectations for success and no existing brand as a means to build its data. The game was (despite apparent server and authentication challenges) released as a fully formed product, not a work in progress. Not a pivot so much as building something new on top of a great foundation.

4. Augmented Reality is having its moment. There’s just something about seeing a purple animated bat flying on your front lawn or a Pidgey on the roof of your office.

Pidgey in Oakland

Pidgey in Oakland

What will be the impact?

  • Foursquare must be having some interesting meetings today. They perhaps have the most accurate and deep set of location-based data in the world and continue to struggle with how to turn that asset into a business on par with the money that has been raised. Could a marketer partner with Foursquare to do something powerful?
  • Augmented Reality is having its Sid Caesar moment. He did something new and influential with the TV format using the same tools as those who came before him. Pokémon Go will be influential as well. How many new AR apps and games will we see within the next year?
  • Pokémon Go is about to surpass Twitter’s daily active users. An interesting benchmark, but I would guess the biggest Pokémon affect was felt by Facebook. Millions of people were out catching Pidgeys instead of reading their newsfeeds.
  • I remember hearing about hybrid real-world / digital gaming apps from Japan years ago, such as this virtual fishing game. I’m struggling to remember something similar that was a hit globally or in the US. This is a a game built on highly local (down to a few meters) collaboration and interactions. Beyond messaging and dating, what sorts of new interactions might we see that combine location and volume of users.
  • We’re going to get Zuned. Be ready. There will be a lot of bad inspirations that borrow one or two characteristics of Pokémon Go, but not the combination that has made it so compelling. We are going to see a lot of craplets with locations dropped onto Google Maps.
  • Nintendo (and its stock) amazes us yet again. They were only mostly dead.
  • The best games are not about fidelity, GPUs, and frame rate. They have a soul. Charmander helps too.
  • Why so many Rattatas around Lake Merritt? It’s much cleaner there than it used to be.
  • Will this craze last longer than the rush for Foursquare mayorships back in the day?

BTW, there’s a gym across from our Oakland office.

Eric Elia