It took a long time for virtual reality (VR) technology to gain anything close to mainstream acceptance, a struggle that’s embodied by Nintendo’s ill-fated Virtual Boy console, which, in 1995, came about through Game Boy creator Gunpei Yokoi’s obsession with the potential of VR technology and his team’s apparent ignorance to the feeling of “being cooked slowly over a frying pan” while using it during its development cycle. Today though, with the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR all readily available to consumers, it’s almost difficult to believe there were ever any reservations about the technology at all. Sony has reportedly sold 1 million units of its own entry into the VR world, despite launching well after many of its rival devices.
AR or augmented reality is different though. Again, a phenomenon largely associated with a single thing (in this case Niantic’s mobile app Pokémon Go, a title that reached 650 million downloads in February of this year), AR’s explosive popularity was just as remarkable as its apparent slide into obscurity just a year on from a summer that highlighted gamers’ collective obsession with cute fantasy animals. From falling into rivers, getting lost down mines, and taking a canoe out into the ocean to battle a strangely-placed gym, Pokémon Go provided as much entertainment as it did social commentary. It then lost 80% of its users over just six months. Obviously, as the major use-case for AR technology, Pokémon Go’s flagging popularity presents a problem for developers, as it marks the technology as something of a novelty, a plaything that can quickly become boring. The fact that there are only a handful of different ways that AR has been presented so far, with apps that overlay important tourist information (reviews, etc.) over actual buildings and the Pokémon Go/Ingress style “hunt” experience making up the majority, is another issue to be overcome by AR-based software developers. The technology does have a great deal of promise still left in the bank though.
Minecraft & HoloLens
For instance, Microsoft’s HoloLens technology has been widely flaunted by the tech giant but it wouldn’t be unfair to say that Bill Gates and company have shown little interest in marketing it to the public – it’s more of a design tool than a toy. That’s despite the fact that tech demos of both Valve’s Portal and the 122m-selling Minecraft running on HoloLens are enough to make any gamer giddy. Similarly, the casino industry has made steps towards both VR and AR with its live gaming options, melding human dealers with computer generated imagery. Betway Casino, for example, has live versions of poker, blackjack, and roulette, which allow the player to view a video feed which has a layer of computer-generated statistics, cards and options superimposed. As evidenced by Pokémon Go though, the true possibility for AR lies in endless portability and being able to make levels for a platformer out of the furniture in somebody’s living room, a trick that’s central to the gameplay of Young Conker, a HoloLens game. That’s perhaps the next step for any game that involves a table too; for example, it’s entirely feasible that AR could put terrain for a Dungeons & Dragons game on the kitchen worktop or, in the case of Minecraft, offer players a virtual landscape that can be manipulated by hand.
The problem with both AR and VR is that everything is embryonic and unproven; to that extent, it's almost worth ignoring everything that came before 2010, as the failure of the Virtual Boy tarnished the reputation of immersive technologies for more than a decade. The fact that the world’s most famous tech brand, Apple, has only just cottoned on to the idea of AR is a testament to just how difficult the development of virtual and augmented realities has been since 1995.
With its ARKit, a feature bundled into iOS 11, Apple ostensibly hopes to corner the amateur end of AR development, in much the same way as the App Store gave everybody a platform to display their best efforts at game and software design. Consequently, it’s a peculiar pit of homebrew offerings right now, a world of AR fidget spinners and random objects that can be placed around the home to no real avail. If one of the big predictions regarding the new iPhone comes true though, that it will possess Kinect-style camera technology, allowing the user to measure depth, the ARKit could help reestablish Apple as the go-to innovators in the tech industry. It could also give AR technology a renewed purpose in a post-Pokémon Go world.
A challenge remains though; developers need to find a way to detach AR software from the body. Despite being pitched as a 3m-selling device, AR wunderkind Google Glass was incompatible with real life, sending people who witnessed it deep into a new version of the uncanny valley; similarly, staring through a mobile phone will always be an unwieldy way to catch Pokémon.
There's still a long road ahead for AR (and 568 more Pokémon) but that hopefully means there's still plenty left to get excited about.