Pokémon Go is a worldwide mobile gaming phenomenon. Since its launch in July 2016, the game has more than 30 million daily users as of August 2016. While the daily active user base has slipped from its peak of 45 million users at launch, it still remains one of the most popular mobile games in recent history. Pokémon Go is a location-based mobile augmented reality (AR) game, in which players are required to capture Pokémon characters in the real world. The mobile device camera, GPS functionality, and gyroscope are used to layer Pokémon characters onto the real world. The game requires players to physically travel and explore the real world through the game’s map. Pokémon Go is made by Niantic, Inc., a mobile gaming company spun out of Google, and creators of another well-known mobile AR game, Ingress. Although Ingress did have 1 million daily users at its peak, it is no match for Pokémon Go’s success.
While Pokémon Go is a mobile AR game, a number of AR smart glasses variants have already emerged over the last few months. Pokémon Go has been shown to work on Recon Jet, Optinvent ORA2, ODG R-7, Vuzix M-100, and Microsoft HoloLens. Smart glasses provide a convenient, hands-free user interface/user experience (UI/UX) compared to a smartphone.
The Tipping Point for AR Glasses
So, does the arrival of Pokémon Go mean that we have reached a tipping point for AR, specifically smart glasses? Pokémon Go does prove that AR can become a mass-market phenomenon, beyond indoor spaces. The game is a very important and timely proof of concept, and a glimpse into the future of AR. Apart from mobile AR technology, which has been around for many years, what was needed was a cultural phenomenon like Pokémon, to provide the initial impetus.
Pokémon already has a very large fan following, which can be traced back to its release over the Nintendo Game Boy back in the 1990s. The Pokémon media franchise is worth ¥4.8 trillion (US$46.5 billion). Unlike Ingress, which was a new game without a history, Pokémon is an established media and cultural brand with a cult following, which led to its viral growth. More importantly, the Pokémon Company was smart to release the game on mobile devices, rather than on smart glasses. Rather than go for the shiny new technology gadget of the future, Pokémon Go went for the device that is in everyone’s pocket today.
Success Requires Strategic Partnerships and Killer Content
The big takeaway for smart AR glasses is that technology is not enough to make a product category a success. As Pokémon Go has shown, the content is much more important, and especially if the content has an established cult following, the chances of it succeeding improve manifold. It is hard to say if Pokémon Go will retain its current daily active users, but it is likely that many other brands and media and content companies will try to create mobile AR games similar to Pokémon Go. Expect to see many copycats in 2017, with the best ones succeeding in the long run. Pokémon Go has definitely opened the floodgates for mobile AR. For smart AR glasses, the companies that are hoping to see the product category succeed will have to work closely with media brands, movie production companies, music companies, sports franchises, and other popular culture entities.
A good example of where this is already happening is Magic Leap’s partnership with Disney, where it is trying to leverage the Star Wars franchise to create a unique new experience. Magic Leap has a vision for how AR will work outdoors, on the streets, and be experienced on sidewalks, parks, and beaches. Magic Leap understands the importance of a cultural phenomenon better than any other smart AR glasses company. And the public has yet to see what the Magic Leap device looks like! Most other smart glasses companies, including Google and Microsoft, have focused on releasing the hardware first, even if it was in beta, hoping that the right developer talent will end up delivering the killer applications. While we currently have Pokémon Go ported onto smart AR glasses, the overall experience is still substandard, and unlikely to spur overnight demand for these devices.
Focusing on media partnerships is much more important, and getting the right content, on an equally compelling device, will create the killer combination that will drive the inflection point for smart AR glasses.