Jul 15 2016

Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and Pokemon Go

PokemonGoThis past week my daughters were running around the neighborhood with their iPhones trying to capture virtual creatures. They weren’t alone – Pokemon Go became an instant sensation, becoming the most downloaded game app in US history. It will probably not last long (the app is somewhat buggy and the execution has issues), but I think it gives us a glimpse of the near future.

Predicting technology is tricky because it is difficult to know how people will receive and adapt to the technology. Until the tech is in the hands of the public, you cannot predict how popular it will be, and even how it will be used. Who would have predicted that texting would be more popular than video chat?

Well, the real story here is that Pokemon Go is perhaps the first time that augmented reality was put in the hands of the public, and they loved it (at least in the short term). This may prove to be an infatuation, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

Virtual Reality vs Augmented Reality

There is no question that these technologies are here and on the verge of becoming widespread. We are at that point similar to just before the iPhone, when smartphones were ready to become ubiquitous.

Virtual reality is essentially immersive video. Instead of looking at a monitor you wear glasses that cover your entire field of vision. This puts you, at least visually, into a virtual world.

Oculus Rift is the most popular at the moment, but there are many brands coming on the market. As is often the case, early applications are usually video games with more practical applications to follow.

For a technology like this to really take off we often need to have not only an affordable and workable device, but a killer app. When a video game you can only play with VR goggles comes out, and everyone wants to play the game, everyone will want to have VR goggles.

What is not clear at this point is whether or not VR technology will replace computer monitors. This is not a no-brainer. VR goggles tend to cause motion sickness. Tweaks to the technology are reducing this problem, but it has not been eliminated completely.

The big variable is how will people like using VR for everyday computer applications. Would I want to strap those goofy goggles on my head and be completely cut off from the real world just to send some e-mail or write my blog? What about when they are the size of ordinary glasses? Will I maintain a high-def big monitor and expensive VR goggles, or try to get by with just the goggles?

If I had to make a prediction, I would say that monitors will be here for a long time and that VR hardware will supplement, but not replace, monitors. But again, we will have to wait and see.

Augmented reality is different than virtual reality in that the visual computer information does not fill your entire visual field, but rather is overlaid on top of reality. The first major step in this direction was Google Glass – transparent glasses that allowed you to see the real world but had a small projector in one corner to beam visual information into your eye.

The question I have now is this – what does the Pokemon Go phenomenon tell us about public acceptance of augmented reality? The game is undeniably fun, seeing little magical critters around your house and inhabiting the real world.

I can imagine a much more elaborate version of an augmented reality video game. Imagine being in a real location, which could be the woods, a large building, or a city. You are wearing augmented reality glasses that overlay onto this location virtual inhabitants (people, monsters, aliens, whatever) with whom you interact. You have an earpiece and microphone so you can hear the characters and they can hear you. You are completely immersed in a video game, but you are physically moving around in the real world. Perhaps you are playing with friends who have overlaid on top of them the image of whatever character they are playing, and vice versa.

As with the motion sickness problem of virtual reality, augmented reality has its own Achilles heel – you are moving around in meat space and this has risks. Already there are complaints of people playing Pokemon Go and going into places they shouldn’t be. There are also risks in the real world, like traffic and things to trip over. Playing a game in a controlled environment would be more safe, but also more constraining.

So, we still need to see all the implications of how this technology will be applied. Of course, there are many non-game potential applications. GPS directions could actually show you where to drive, overlying arrows onto the real road, for example. Ikea furniture could come with downloadable directions that walk you through construction – pick up this piece, insert it here. Classrooms could also benefit from AR in many ways.


I think it is clear that we are at the doorstep of both VR and AR. The technology is here, although they need to be tweaked, and the applications are coming. Exactly how these technologies will be used remains to be seen, but there are some obvious possibilities.

It does seem very likely that in 10 years we will be as unable to imagine life without these technologies as we are unable to imagine life without our smartphones today. I could be wrong. They may only find niche applications, like the Segway. I doubt it, but we’ll see.

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