The Technology Behind Pokémon Go: Why Augmented Reality is the Future
July 14, 2016
The explosive launch of Pokémon Go has vaulted augmented reality (AR) into the spotlight. While many users of the 90s throwback game don’t understand the technological advancements in both AR and data collection, the implications are far-reaching.
The truth is that mainstream application of AR is still in its infancy and we are just beginning to see its practical use with games like Pokémon Go.
As with many technologies, the general public is made aware of its existence not when it’s first invented, but as it becomes useful or practical in some way that grabs our attention. The invention of the Internet far preceded its widespread use and now dominance of our work and personal lives. Touchscreens were created well before Apple designed a beautiful, seamless experience for the user. We know of Steve Jobs, but not E.A. Johnson, who invented touchscreen technology. And now, there’s AR – which adds layers of information to our experiences in real time.
Augmented Reality – Made in 1968
As a matter of fact, the first historical account of AR dates back to 1968, when Ivan E. Sutherland created the first head-mounted display system using computer-generated graphics to show users simple wireframe drawings. The early 1970s saw the next big development in AR with the production of heads up displays or HUD for use in military fighter jets pre-WWII. AR is nothing new, however we are still figuring out the best use cases for the pervasive application of this technology, and we have a long way to go.
Ingress – The First AR Gaming Experience
Jump ahead 40 years to the 2012 release of the AR, location-based game Ingress, created by Niantic. The software company, who also created Pokémon Go, was once a part of Google. The company developed the game using AR and a data-gathering, GPS-engaging system similar to Pokémon Go.
The goal: players on opposing teams have to ‘capture’ portals based on real landmarks. The portals are all around the world, and the game is played by millions of people in more than 200 countries. Sounds familiar right? Arguably, it was the integration of the technology with the wildly popular Pokémon that catapulted Pokémon Go into rockstar status over a comparable game like Ingress.
stable|kernel iOS software engineer Alex Nachlas says, “the idea of a social location-based game is what you’re going to see people moving towards because it’s becoming common that people always have technology with them.”
It’s true; we currently possess access to consistently good service and a decent battery life. We have our phones on us almost 24/7 and AR technology is available. So why aren’t there more games of this nature? It’s all about the data. stable|kernel Android software engineer David Mays explains, “Niantic worked on location algorithms for years and figured out how to locate the user through GPS, take that data and display it within the context of the game environment. Ingress has had the time to refine that technology.”
To Infinity and Beyond
Despite the incredible advancements in AR since its original inception, the widespread practical use of such technology is still lacking. Pokémon Go is simply a fun, interactive game; it’s not saving lives, and there’s no proof that it will be anything beyond a passing fad that will find its way into the overpopulated ‘deleted app’ heaven in the near future. But beyond its gaming use, AR has the potential to save lives on a large scale and greatly impact the way we receive information.
The AR technology is already being used in multiple industries. For example at a manufacturing line, it is being used to run diagnostics and make repairs on certain equipment. Car owner manuals apps like Audi’s and Hyundai’s use AR to help car owners learn about their vehicles by showing the inner workings of their cars – from features to mechanics. In medicine, a prototype has been created for a system that pairs a patient monitoring device with a headset to give a ‘heads-up’ view of the patient’s vital signs.
Nachlas explains, “AR in Pokémon Go takes an image and superimposes on the camera which is technologically speaking very easy to do. The more difficult challenge is getting your camera, in real time, to create a 3D mesh of whatever it’s pointing at and allow placed objects to interact with the world.” Magic Leap is another example of this kind of technology, where a pair of glasses projects an image onto the iris to activate AR.
Bryan Richardson, Android software engineer at stable|kernel, wants you to consider this: what if firefighters could wear a helmet that could essentially see through the walls, indicating the location of a person in distress? What if that device could detect the temperature of a wall? In the near future, the amount of information that will be available through a virtual scan of our immediate environment and projected through a practical, wearable device could be immense.
“I think that’s the challenge with AR right now, to have a really good AR experience you’re going to need something that you wear over your eyes that looks more attractive, doesn’t burn you and it needs to last longer,” says Erik Rahtjen, iOS software engineer at stable|kernel. “It needs to be able to last for a day and then you recharge it.”
The technology is there, but it may be innovative hardware that will entirely change the game. The application of AR to a popularized game like Pokémon Go is undoubtedly the precipice for a more widespread adoption of the technology, yet, it will likely be outside of the gaming industry where the revolutionary developments exist.