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Thoughts on Pokemon Go

By Jon Callaghan, July 13, 2016

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After hearing about Pokemon Go, I spent a good part of the weekend playing it, then watching my family play it. In just a few short days, Pokemon has gone from being an old card game for little kids to the hottest app/digital experience for all ages. It’s transformed how we experience reality through our phones, and it did so smoothly and with alacrity, in a matter of days.

What’s so special about it? There are many impressive compute and game dynamics at play here, but I’m most impacted by three aspects of the app:

1) The third person “avatar” view is just real enough to be believed, but it’s not meant to be perfect. I’m fond of saying that “perfect is the enemy of great,” and this is an example of great UI.  Our brains are extremely harsh judges of things that try to be realistic but fall slightly short. I think this is a big challenge for the VR and AR revolution of which we are on the verge. If something is represented to us as “real” then we judge, but when presented with something that is clearly not “real” our brains are incredibly adept at accepting representations and “smoothing the lines” or “filling in” the gaps cognitively. I think this is what’s going on with the walking avatar view of yourself. Your street/town map is just close enough to be accurate, but it’s not perfect. So instead of trying to “judge it” we accept it, admire it. I find myself “amazed” that it’s as accurate as it is, versus complaining or being confused that it’s not accurate.  This is a subtle but incredibly challenging line to walk for UI developers.

2) Camera integration—it’s just a “wow” to discover a Pokemon in your hallway. It looks amazing, it “feels real” and the tiny little screen seems like just a small square of virtual sewn into reality. It’s just that good.

3) The integration with the real world (in the form of artifacts) and the need for movement – actually walking around the real world to progress the game – creates a connection to what’s around you. Yes, this past weekend people were walking around even MORE zombified by their phones, but something is different, because they are actually watching the real world (I know, bear with me), and along the way learning more about that world through the artifacts and Easter eggs of the app. Knowing that the LA artist painted the piece in the Virgin terminal is additive to your real-world experience. Far from distancing you from your surroundings, this app connects you more deeply with it.

We’re on the edge of an enormous revolution in user interface design due to the emergence of virtual and augmented reality systems and computing.  These platform shifts are never easy to predict, and technology has a funny way of leaping forward in unexpected ways.  Surprises happen all the time, and I’m most struck that Pokemon Go might be one of these enormous surprises for the AR movement.  What if Pokemon Go surpasses the other, heavier attempts to bring AR to the world?

What if it’s to MagicLeap what Facebook was to SecondLife—the swifter, lighter, more intuitive solution to an advanced computing and cognitive UX problem. SecondLife and MagicLeap are moonshots and that is what makes them so unique. I have a TON of respect for those teams and ambitions, and (full disclosure) we at True have invested behind Philip and the SL team twice— they are brilliant.  But what if this swifter, faster, cleaner way of augmenting reality leaps over the heavier attempts that we all see now.  The result could be a dramatically faster adoption of AR.

Facebook trumped heavier social interaction systems like SecondLife, Friendster and others for lots of reasons.  And, while it’s not a perfect analogy, its light weight platform solved an unmet need for virtual social relationships.  Pokemon Go appears and suddenly a Pokemon is in your house, your yard, your town. The app is fast, intuitive, and indeed it augments reality beautifully, with cartoony characters and beings. No headset required, no VR setup, no fancy retinal painting technology needed. Just you, your phone, the world.

This is the new interface and experience for so many applications, and my prediction is we will soon see augmented/mixed-reality boom in simple ways. Recall the earlier AR demos of a few years ago? Perhaps now they become reality. Yelp reviews while holding your camera up to a menu? We weren’t ready for that a few years back, but we are now, thanks to all of the user training happening now on PokemonGo. Within three years, I predict we’ll watch feature-length films, set in our house, perhaps with “selfie cameos” of us with the talent. Don’t get me wrong—I love the Vive and Oculus experience (and True is investing heavily in this space), but I think this weekend we witnessed the birth of the “big” AR and VR boom. The proliferation and power of the smartphone puts augmented reality in the hands of billions, instantly. No clunky gear and no wired connection required. Look out real world, the virtuals are on the way.