Augmented Reality and the Future of App Development

Posted / 10 August, 2016

Author / Enginess

Pokémon Go and its advances in augmented reality may fundamentally change how we use technology to interact with the world.

When we’re talking about computer-altered realities, we tend to focus on virtual reality and brush off the closely related world of augmented reality ("AR"). But with the recent release of the incredibly popular Pokémon Go app, AR has now earned its time in the spotlight. We’re sure you’ve heard enough about Pokémon Go from your coworkers and friends to last you a lifetime, but bear with us: the app has some important things to teach us about the future of augmented reality and app development in general. While it may have been hard to guess ahead of time, Pokémon Go (and its approach to augmented reality) might just be the app that fundamentally shakes up how we use technology to interact with the world.  

What is Augmented Reality?

Digital Trends defines augmented reality as ‘the interaction of superimposed graphics, audio and other sense enhancements over a real-world environment that’s displayed in real time.’ Examples of augmented are surprisingly easy to find, they are as simple as the graphics you often see superimposed onto TV footage, or a Snapchat filter. But we’re entering a new phase of augmented reality that’s more interactive, user-driven, and app-based.  

Augmented Reality Progress Report

Different incarnations of AR tech have been around for a while, but it has been slow to take the mass market by storm. Om Malik has referred to AR as ‘the boy who cried wolf of the post-Internet world – it’s long been promised but has rarely been delivered in a satisfying way.’ We’ve seen AR-supporting products like Google Glass flop, and various companies like Lego and IKEA try to get AR apps off the ground to limited success. Microsoft has promised a future with rich AR experiences with its forthcoming Hololens, but so far It hasn’t been clear how AR technology will be used effectively. Until now, that is. With the release of the Pokémon Go app, we’ve got one of the first successful examples of how augmented reality might start to change the way we use phones to interact with our environments. So what does Pokémon Go have that previous AR attempts were missing? Hint: it’s not just that people love Pokémon.  

Pokémon Go’s Augmented Reality

By now, you’ve probably seen packs of Pokémon-hunters running around your city trying to bag a Pikachu or Charizard. The app’s popularity has reached incredible heights: two days after its release, it had been downloaded on 5.16% of Android phones, and within a week, it was the most downloaded app in the Apple App Store. Plus, people are spending more time daily on Pokémon Go than Facebook or Snapchat (43 minutes, to be exact). Some part of the Pokémon Go success story can be attributed to a nostalgia for the classic franchise, but its success across gender, age and ethnicity shows that there is more too it than just that. The Pokémon Go app combines AR tech with the GPS and camera features of smartphones to create an interactive experience, where players explore the Pokemon world through their phone, with their feet still firmly planted in the real world. The players’ real environments are overlaid with computer-generated game features, like ‘Pokestops’ and ‘Pokegyms’. The game’s AR tech lets players spot and catch Pokémon in the wild, so to speak: they can be found almost anywhere, from parks to streets, to shops and cafes.  

Lessons for the Future of Augmented Reality Apps

So what does this new step in AR implementation mean for the rest of the app world? Here are the main lessons we can draw from Pokémon Go’s successful use of AR, and what they’ll mean for the future of app development.  

1) Good AR is interactive

The fact that Pokémon Go lets users interact with the world around them (in augmented form) is a major draw card for the game. AR of yesteryear didn’t focus much on interaction, but we can expect that to change going forward, partly thanks to the power of smartphones. We’re living in a world where smartphones have cameras, GPS, barometers and an array of other features that can turn AR into a more immersive and interactive experience. What we are excited about is that this interaction in AR doesn’t have to be catching Pokémon - it could be as simple as using an AR application to pull up product information in a store, check into a bar, or learn more about a piece of art in a museum. Whatever it is, we’re expecting the future of AR to harness interactivity in a big way.  

2) Good AR is social

Pokémon Go is a really social AR experience. Sure, you play the game alone on a personal screen, but users create teams to play with, and the nature of the game requires that players go into the real world and engage with their environment. Given the size of the audience, playing is also a bonding experience – fellow Pokémon Go players are easy to spot and chat strategy with on the street. The fact that Pokémon Go is so social should tell us something interesting about the future of AR applications. Whereas past attempts at AR (such as Google Glass’s AR features), have focused on users as individuals, successful AR of the future might rely more on creating community and providing opportunities for users to engage with each other in their augmented reality worlds.  

3) Good AR doesn’t require special equipment

Anyone with a smartphone can play Pokémon Go, which is a far cry from the Google Glass vision of augmented reality that was dominant a few years ago. This more approachable and accessible version of augmented reality has definitely played a role in the app’s popularity. Here’s the thing: smartphones today have the processing power, camera, and GPS capabilities to do some impressive things. And while Facebook and Microsoft are both developing their own VR and AR wearables, it’s now clear that you can create an engaging AR experience without any special bells and whistles. This realisation is a big step towards more widespread AR use on the user end, and we can expect to see more companies and app developers embracing AR on the smartphone as a result.  

Wrap Up

With the release of Pokémon Go, we’ve taken a big leap forward into the world of mainstream augmented reality. And it’s not just Pokémon Go that’s propelling us into the future. Facebook is rumoured to be developing new augmented reality glasses, Microsoft has been playing around with their HoloLens AR glasses, and it’s becoming clear that even a basic smartphone can now give users a seamless AR experience on just about any app. There are big things ahead for augmented reality – and app developers would be wise to take note.

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