To explain ‘Augmented Reality’, words that imply that ‘reality’ has been worked on, improved and made better, we must first begin with what ‘reality’ really means. But since Radhika (Senior Person + Editor in Chief) won’t let me bore you on my thoughts on reality and it’s meaning (which I love doing), I am going to pay-her-back by writing an article I don’t want to. If she can’t let me do what I want to, then she can’t get what she wants. Yes, this will be a very mature blogpost.
When we started BlueAnt Digital, way back in 2011, when you were still in your nappies (or non-biodegradable diapers), our very second project was an Augmented Reality app for Khoj International Artists Association. It was a simple app based on a simple idea: art galleries have limited space and the collections that they display in that limited space changes fairly regularly. So what if you walked into a gallery and wanted to see what artwork they curated and displayed in 2008? Well, all you would have to do is whip out your phone, open an Augmented Reality app, select the year 2008 from a dropdown, point your phone camera to the walls of the gallery and on your phone screen you would see the gallery walls overlaid with artwork that had been displayed in 2008. In other words you would experience the gallery circa 2008 via your smartphone. We then extended this concept to a square mile around Khoj’s gallery space and called the project 1SAM. You can read more about it here.
And that’s what Augmented Reality is, it is taking the reality around you and adding another layer of information and interaction over it. It’s like if reality is cake, then AR is another layer of cake that has been added on top. And we all know, layered cake tastes better than ‘normal’ cake. And if it’s carrot cake, then it sucks no matter how many layers it has. But I digress.
Augmented Reality can potentially have a ton of uses. You can layer cities with information and people with smartphones can use that information to know more about a city’s history. They can also use AR to find location attractions or best restaurants in the city. But that’s not all, you can also use AR to make education more fun adding more virtual interactive elements to a classroom. The possibilities were endless. And yet for all it’s promise, Augmented Reality never quite became accepted, popular or ‘mainstream’ (which is Radhika’s favourite stream). We pitched a number of Augmented Reality apps in 2011 and yet by 2012, we had already learnt that no one in the market had heard of Augmented Reality, or thought it had no practical use and just didn’t want to spend any serious cash on it. With no one wiling to pay for experimentation and development, we thought that AR story was just the same as the VR story. (and VR story has also come back from the dead, but that’s a different post).
I always felt that Augmented Reality needed a killer app, something that would make it useful for a large number of people. Through that, make it financially viable for marketers to spend money on it and in-turn make it a viable space for people to ideate, design and develop new apps. After all email was the internet’s first killer app, its what made millions of people ‘log in’. Before email, you only had academics communicating with each other online and ‘normal’ people had no use for it. Its this killer app that Augmented Reality needed.
And that app is Pokemon Go: a game that uses a player’s physical location and surroundings to get people to find, capture and train virtual animals. The animals are then supposedly forced into vicious fights to the death. Hey, just because Pokemon look cute, doesnt mean that the entire game isn’t just a hello-kitty-ized version of an underground dog fight that you once saw in gory movie and then didn’t sleep for a week. But none of that matters. What matters is that Pokemon Go resurrected a cartoon and a childhood memory for millions of paying ‘adults’, in effect creating a market, that hopefully now needs more Augmented Reality apps.
Pokemon Go got another thing right: it gave you fun gameplay and let you interact with the world without really calling it ‘Augmented Reality’. Keeping the nerdy jargon out of it helps, as it doesn’t really matter if you know what makes the game work, as long as it works and people want to play it.
This layering of the world around you with virtual animals, gyms and arenas, had another impact: not only did it get people moving, it got groups of people moving. And groups that move together tweet together, instagram together and tag each other, creating a mobile organic content train that just kept talking about the game. Not only did this create a buzz, it made people who saw these posts on twitter, facebook and instagram want to find Pokemon in groups too, thus feeding and sustaining the buzz around the game. See an example of small ‘poke-walk’ going viral here. If you’re in the mood, watch thousands of Pokemon Go players overwhelming Taipei, Taiwan. Yes, it’s a Daily Mail link.
And yet there is one more thing. In the future, I see brands paying to have Pokestops layered over their shops, malls and fast food restaurants, so that they can pull in more customers. And this is what makes Pokemon Go different: it has managed to combine nerds with non-nerds, made them go on long group walks that cause social media traction and pull in brand attention. Together this represents an Augmented Reality ecosystem, one that serves the visitors, the app maker, promotes physical exercise and pulls in brands. It represents a financial flow, one in which funds mostly flow to the app maker from the game player and brand. And it’s this flow that will get investors and brands excited enough to want to take ‘AR’ further. (Someone working on Augmented Reality, walking and raising funds for NGOs? I am telling you it’s coming.)
Pokemon Go showed that you can add a layer of fun and interaction on the reality around you and still make it so easy to use that anyone and everyone would want to play. With Pokemon Go, AR finally has a killer app, something that shows the true potential of this once-new technology, and I hope that it will bring in a wave of applications that combine reality with a layer of fun. In fact, we’d love to create AR apps for Diwali, something that combines the lights of the festival, without the noise and smoke of endless fire crackers. If you’re interested, just hit us up!