Ok I did it. I downloaded Pokemon Go. Yes I was trying to resist, yes it was futile, yes it’s an awesome concept. Whilst a strong believer in Virtual Reality as a driving force in how we will handle much of our lives in the future (see my extensive blog series on the subject), I can see that apps like this have the potential to take Augmented Reality (AR) mainstream much faster than VR. What with the safety (and aesthetic) issues inherent in walking round with a headset on, AR allows you to enter a semi immersive environment but still see the world around you. Although that fact doesn’t negate the need for a warning not to walk blindly into traffic mid-game. By overlaying graphics, user interface and interactive elements over the real world environment we can experience a much more ‘real life’ feel to gaming. The fact that it also gets a generation of console gamers on their feet and out into the big wide world is just an added bonus.
It turns out Pokemon Go isn’t the company’s first attempt at this kind of application. Back in 2012 they sought users to test a beta version of a similar real world game based on spies. The idea was that you followed the map on your phone to relevant locations to solve puzzles, make drops etc. You could argue that the reason this has taken off when that didn’t is that it now has the marketing superpower of Pokemon and Nintendo behind it, but I think it’s a little more than that. All anyone in the tech industry has been talking about in recent months is VR, AR and Computer Vision and this uses two of the three straight away. Not only that but it does so in a form that’s accessible to absolutely everyone with a smartphone (and in its early days, an external battery pack for those who want to use it for more than about ten minutes).
The idea of playing an adventure style game in my home city appeals to me anyway. The fact that Pokemon Go overlays itself onto your actual surroundings, rather than just as a point on an animated map, makes it a whole lot more relatable. This is where Computer Vision comes in, as your phone has to be able to recognise and interpret the locations and landmarks it sees in order to use AR to realistically overlay the Pokemon onto your surroundings. Without computer vision it could prove difficult to avoid bugs like trapping Pokemon in unreachable environments, or enticing people into dangerous situations.
There’s been something of a misconception that you need ‘special’ computer vision chips to be able to do things like computer vision, and that the subsequent additional silicon is unfeasible in the mobile form factor, but this just isn’t the case. Not only can you actually do this level of basic computer vision exclusively on the CPU but some companies also have an engine which can recognize if your device has an ARM Mali GPU and automatically redirect some of the workload to it. Not only does this free up the processing power and bandwidth of the CPU but it also allows us to access the superior graphical capabilities of the existing GPU with no need for additional hardware.
The huge and lightning fast adoption of Pokemon Go, in spite of its quite considerable bugs and glitches, demonstrates just how keen we are jump on board with the next big thing in smartphones. It also shows that a new, and potentially confusing, technology can reach global uptake simply due to clever and compelling packaging. Whilst I fully expect the game to be optimized and bug free in a very short time, it will also no doubt prompt a wave of similar concept applications. I’ll be interested to see how this develops and whether (or maybe when) it will make AR truly the next big thing.