How cute little monsters launched a new era of AR

In New York on the evening of 15th July 2016 a voice reportedly called out, “Oh my god! There’s a Vaporeaon right there, so everyone’s running!”. Hundreds of people stopped what they were doing, stood up and ran towards Central Park. Cars stopped dead in the street and drivers got out and ran, some leaving the engine running and the keys in the ignition. All that could be seen was a stream of lights from mobile phones heading into the darkness of the park.

It sounds like a scene from a science fiction b-movie, but this actually happened and was caused by the sighting of a rare creature in the mobile game Pokémon Go. And this wasn’t the only time it happened. Over the coming month it happened again, and again, and again, all over the world with increasing intensity.

This was the first surge in popularity of a new wave of technology that is now becoming known as MAR - Mobile Augmented Reality.

Pokémon Go was an immediate hit with fans of the original 1990s franchise, but also with people just wanting to experience AR for themselves. Up until this point AR had been around for over a decade in various forms, but it never quite broke through, having only really proving effective in large advertising campaigns. In contrast, Pokémon Go was AR for the masses and was popular with young and old alike.

However it wasn’t just a hit with the users, it was also a record-breaking commercial success. The game was released in Australia, New Zealand and the US on July 6th 2016, and a week later on July 13th in Europe. By the end of July the “free” game had raised over $160 million USD with in-app purchases and by September the app had exceeded a record breaking $600 million USD in revenue.

Owners of the franchise, The Pokémon Company, didn’t actually develop the game. In fact it was produced by a software development company based in San Francisco called Niantic. The software house had previously created a similar AR mobile game called Ingress and used many of the learnings from that project to create Go. This was a perfect example of a brand recognising the potential of a technology and successfully outsourcing creativity and development to further their franchise. However unexpectedly, in turn the popularity of the brand also escalated the popularity of the technology into a whole new era.

Looking back

At the outset the primary focus of Augmented Reality was never intended to be gaming. The ultimate goal of AR has always been to make life easier by providing additional virtual information to the real environment. However, uptake of the technology has been slow seemingly due to brands struggling to create concepts that consumers understand and want to engage with.

An early example of MAR that became widely popular was “Sky Map”. In 2009, Google released the app as a free download and it later came preinstalled on some Android phones. Sky Map simply allowed you to point your mobile phone skyward and identify the stars above you. We marvelled at the possibilities of MAR for education, navigation and medical training. We considered the power of holding your phone up to a person and being able to see where their organs are, looking at a wall and knowing where electric cable or water pipes are positioned, or following a virtual path down a mountain when lost in a snowstorm. This technology could save lives and change the world.

Little did we know that the reality of the technology’s eventual breakthrough would actually be chasing down colourful pocket monsters in your lunch hour.

“Oh look! Pidgey is on that guy’s head!”

Soon after MAR apps started to emerge, advertising agencies hunted for bigger and grander concepts. MAR was pushed quietly into the background whilst larger AR stunts and physical installations became the trend.

In 2010, Microsoft released the Kinect for the Xbox 360 - a small rectangular box that contained a camera, depth sensor and microphone, which when combined could allow for the detection of a user’s position in a room. A player could use themselves as the controller of a game or put their body shape into a yoga or fitness app. It worked reasonably well and became immediately popular with casual gamers - let’s face it, there’s nothing quite like watching your pension-age parents fling themselves across the living room trying to hit a virtual tennis ball after Christmas lunch.

So in 2011 when Microsoft released the official Software Development Kit for the Kinect, creative developers immediately jumped on it as an exciting new technology that they could use in Augmented Reality brand installations. A flurry of Kinect based AR advertising campaigns followed. In the following four years advertisers gave us virtual dressing rooms, bus stops that convinced people that aliens were landing, and angels falling to earth in train stations. These campaigns were entertaining and well executed, but they removed consumers almost completely from the campaign leaving them to watch other people experiencing AR in glossy YouTube videos.

The impact of Pokemon Go

The release of Pokémon Go reclaimed AR for the everyday consumer and MAR came back into focus almost immediately. Within just a few months of Go’s release the “big 3” tech giants all released details of how they were advancing into MAR. Facebook released AR Studio onto the market, swiftly followed by Apple with ARKit and Google with ARCore.

Facebook’s AR Studio takes a simple approach and concentrates on the enhancement of live social interaction (unsurprisingly) in a similar manner to Snapchat or Instagram face filters. AR filters have been around for a while now on social channels and have proved to be popular, but until recently the only way to produce filters for your brand would be by partnering directly with the social platform and using their development team. Facebook appears to be attempting to break that mould by inviting all developers to apply to participate in their beta program. At the time of writing though, this application is still very much subject to approval.

In contrast Apple’s ARKit allows for full AR app development on iOS devices, and Google’s ARCore does the same for Android devices. Both of these frameworks are open and available to use by any developer right now.

And creative developers are having the time of their lives.

Here at Toaster we’ve been exploring Augmented Reality and focusing on MAR with both ARKit and ARCore. We’re putting community and accessibility at the forefront of our experiments, ensuring that we respect the surroundings of the user as well as the user themselves. We see MAR technology increasing in popularity ten fold in the coming year and we intend to be at the forefront guiding our clients to create the best experiences that the technology can currently offer.

So if you’re interested in using MAR while it is still quite young, we can advise you on the best methods for approaching the technology with your brand and help bring them to reality. Please get in touch for more information.