Science behind the game and craze: Pokémon GO and Augmented Reality


The Pokémon GO phenomenon has swept over the entire world. The craze to catch the tiny anime creatures has gone viral, even though the game has launched in just five countries officially. It has already been declared the biggest mobile game in US history, beating other notables like Candy Crush Saga, Clash Royale and Draw Something, and threatens to outdo social networks like Tinder, Twitter, and evenFacebook when it comes to daily active users Pokémon GO taps on augmented reality and geocaching to give a new twist to mobile gaming. It isn’t the first game in the popular Pokémon franchise, though — the original Pokémon was an RPG (Role Playing Game) developed for GameBoy in 1996, and the Pokémon anime series is one of the world’s longest running. And in the early 2000s, many in India watched the Pokémon cartoon series.Pokémon GO is a free-to-play location-based Augmented Reality (AR) game developed by Niantic Labs in collaboration with Nintendo for Android and iOS devices. Players walk around outdoors searching for Pokémons, magical anime creatures with special powers. A user has to capture, train and battle these Pokémons. The bigger your Pokémon squad, the stronger you are in the game.Pokémon GO uses your device’s GPS to track your location and find new Pokémons, and then uses the phone’s camera to virtually superimpose them over the surroundings. The game switches on the camera, and a user will see the Pokémon appear right in front of them, almost as if it were a part of the real world. Like in the series, the user must then throw the ‘Pokeball’ at the creature, and try to capture it.To comprehend the game’s appeal, one needs to understand the anime. The anime’s protagonist, Ash Ketchum, travels with his friends Misty and Brock to catch Pokémons and fight Poke-gym owners to become the Pokémon master. After you level up enough, you need to travel to different geographical locations to fight other Pokémon masters to get control of the gym. The game appears to have picked popular locations across cities as ‘gyms’, where users can go to train their Pokémons.Pokémon GO relies on AR to bring these creatures to life. AR is quite different from Virtual Reality (VR), in which a user is transported to another world, and is expected to play within this realm. Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Sony’s upcoming PlayStation VR headset are examples of VR gaming headsets.In AR, images/information generated from a computer are projected on to real-life objects or surroundings, allowing users to read data and/or interact with them.Microsoft’s HoloLens is one of the more ambitious examples of AR; the HoloLens will project virtual creations on to real world surroundings, and let users interact with them.AR-powered apps aren’t a new idea, however. Nokia’s Lumia smartphones had an AR-powered app called City Lens in 2012, where a user could point the camera at, say, a marketplace, and the app would reflect information about it. The GoogleGoggles app offers something similar, and was being tested with the Google Glass project.There are similar concepts in the Head-up-display of fighter aircraft and cars. But Pokémon GO is without doubt the first time AR has had such mass appeal. No powerful headsets like Oculus or HTC Vive (wearing which for long leaves many feeling nauseated) are needed — the Pokémon is right there, on your smartphone, dancing on a park bench, or maybe even on your boss’s head!In 2011-12, most phones didn’t have great cameras or processing capabilities to run AR-powered apps smoothly; in 2016 even Rs 10,000-smartphones can handle graphics-heavy games. Also, constant 4G connectivity in the US, New Zealand, Australia, the UK and Germany — countries where the game has officially launched — has had people getting immersed in it.The idea of AR being integrated into your existing device and the addition of a popular anime franchise has turned out to be a hit combination for Niantic and Nintendo. Anyone with a reasonably competent smartphone can download the app and start her adventure. So strong is the hype that people are saying things like: “It’s raining outside. Now I cannot go outdoors and play video games”, and there has been at least one case of a man quitting his job to hunt exclusively for PokémonsWe are moving towards a future without physical screens. The majority of our interaction with technology will be with virtual screens and buttons. As more devices like Google Glass and Microsoft Hololens come to fruition, AR will find greater use in day-to-day life. While VR gaming might find a market in hardcore gamers, AR mobile games and apps will have more mass appeal.

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