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Pokémon Go’s Breakout Success Has Implications for the Real World, Too

Nintendo’s mega-popular new game shows that augmented reality may yet trump virtual reality.

Last week, Nintendo launched Pokémon Go. It’s an augmented reality smartphone game that allows you to capture, train, and trade virtual creatures that appear in the real world. Players can roam their neighborhood to find Pokémon, throwing a virtual ball to capture them.

If the game looks familiar, it’s not surprising. It was developed by Niantic, a former Google subsidiary that previously made a game called Ingress. In that game, players used augmented reality to discover so-called “exotic matter” in their real-world surroundings. But Niantic was the first company to be released as a spin-off when Google became Alphabet, and now it’s swapped exotic matter for Pokémon.

It’s a simple concept, but one that’s so far proven incredibly successful. According to the analytics company SimilarWeb, by July 8, just two days after its release, the game was already installed on 5.16 percent of all Android devices in the U.S.—that’s more than Tinder. It’s also nudging Twitter in terms of numbers of active U.S. users, and seems compelling enough to have kept one man distracted from his wife’s childbirth.

But with such success comes notable social impact. Over the weekend, Shayla Wiggins, from Wyoming, looked to find a Pokémon in a nearby water source, and instead stumbled across a dead body. In O’Fallon, Missouri, a group of teenagers used the app to carry out armed robberies. "Using the geolocation feature the robbers were able to anticipate the location and level of seclusion of unwitting victims," said Sgt. Bill Stringer to the Guardian. Even those not playing the game have been affected, as crowds loiter outside houses that inadvertently correspond to points of interest in the in-game world.

There are more positive stories to emerge from the game’s success, though. According to Gizmodo, people are complaining about all the exercise they’re getting, while at least one person has viewed the game as an excuse for a little development practice, using a drone to spot Pokémon from on high. And Nintendo is surely happy: its rising stock prices have added $7.5 billion to its market value in just two days.

That huge financial success may be a sign of things to come. While the world seems agog at the possibilities of virtual reality, analysts from Stanford-based Digi-Capital suggest that while “virtual reality could be big soon ... augmented reality could be bigger,” though it  “might take longer to get there.” While virtual reality—of the kind championed by Oculus, HTC, and Sony—is certainly immersive, augmented reality allows the user to continue interacting with the real world. That means there’s less chance of feeling sick while using the technology, but it also allows for more interesting possibilities.

Some of these are already playing out—retailers are planning on using the technology to show off their wares in your home, for example, in the hope that it will encourage you to buy more stuff. And both Microsoft and Google seem to be backing AR over VR, with their Hololens and Tango platforms, respectively.

There are greater technical difficulties in creating impressive AR systems, though. Software not only has to create realistic scenes as it does for VR; it also has to ensure that they’re overlaid onto the real world in a convincing manner. To that end, Oculus last year purchased the U.K. company Surreal Vision, a spin-out of Imperial College London specializing in just that.

Pokémon Go may yet turn out be a fad. But its success could be a sign that augmented reality simply appeals more than its purely virtual stablemate.

(Read more: The Guardian, Digi-Capital, “Google Game Could Be Augmented Reality's First Killer App," ”How Stores Will Use Augmented Reality to Make You Buy More Stuff”)

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