#OPSPOV: Pokémon Go and Augmented Reality’s Comeback

Pokémon Go and Augmented Reality's Comeback

In a recent column about the creative slump, I commented: “At Cannes, the talk of the town was virtual reality; yet remember when augmented reality via smartphones was supposed to be the next big thing? It was a neat gimmick, but not one that scales (or keeps consumer interest). How long do you think it will take for the novelty of VR creative to wear off?”

That was a week before Pokémon Go came out, and now I’m feeling a bit like Grandpa Simpson: “I used to be with it, but then they changed what it was. Now what I’m with isn’t it, and what’s it seems weird and scary to me….”

For anyone puzzled as to why many people are glued to their smartphone screens throwing virtual red and white balls to attack imaginary creatures, Pokémon Go is an augmented reality game that uses a smartphone or tablet’s camera to allow players to hunt/attack cartoon monsters that seemingly appear in real-life settings. 

Or that’s what I think the purpose is – since my little brother brought home his first deck of cards, I’ve never quite understood the point of Pokémon and that weird yellow bear thing. I’m the wrong age group – when Pokémon started trending, I was playing in rock bands and driving around bored and aimless, as teenagers are wont to do. 

I would have thought Pokémon was way past its sell-by date in 2016, but Go proved so popular that it crashed game-maker Niantic’s servers over the weekend. I’m not much of mobile gamer besides Angry Birds, which is kind of a throwback to the simpler arcade games of my youth. (It’s also a great way to kill time when you’re drunk and waiting for certain crappy subway lines.) The nostalgia factor is hard at work here, but just by observing people immersed in play, I can tell Pokémon Go is ground-breaking.

Are we witnessing the rebirth of augmented reality? I wouldn’t be surprised – the tech appears to be less clunky now, and tying it to a venerated gaming franchise is quite the coup. I’d expect to see many copycats in the coming months – Mario is probably next up for collecting coins, squashing Koopa Troopas and rescuing princesses in augmented reality.

But the ol’ AR is also making a killing on the youth-magnet known as Snapchat. Ad Week says the platform is raking in the revenue from sponsored “lenses” or “filters” that add artificial elements to photos and even videos. The most notable example is for the Ghostbusters reboot, but on the whole the marketing for that film has been on the cutting edge of tech-infused advertising, including a virtual reality experience at Madame Tussauds

Augmented reality monetization for content providers seems straightforward – you can brand the entire experience, or have sponsored items within. If programs are impressive enough while the tech barrier for entry has dropped to a reasonable cost, such advertising is likely to offer better user experience as well as more revenue than mobile banners. Depending on how creative content providers get, Pokémon Go may be leading the way to another revenue stream that could help stem the revenue tide in traffic moving from desktop to mobile.

The one thing I can’t get passed though is the novelty factor. Several years ago, AdMonsters had many OPS sessions on augmented reality that featured some real neat tricks – pages coming to life in magazines, billboards that played videos, etc. But most of the campaigns featured appeared to be one-offs – advertisers and publishers experimenting with a fad. The New York Times can throw a lot of money at a virtual reality experience to show off and impress advertisers, but is it something they’re going to do on a regular basis? Is it – GASP! – scalable?

Snapchat’s success with filters suggests it has found a scalable augmented reality solution. (At the same time, I get tackiness is part of the charm, but I’m still too stuck up to use them as a consumer.) Pokémon Go is a further sign that augmented reality has made transition from being “neat trick” to an actual worthwhile experience. 

Which it means it can be monetized… Widely.