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Pokémon Go’s success is not a sign publishers need AR offerings

By Chuck Blevins

Cox Media Group Newspapers

Atlanta, Georgia, USA


Augmented Reality has been around for a while (most commonly seen by consumers in greeting card commercials). But with the technological progress on Virtual Reality systems like Oculus, HTC Vive, and Google Cardboard, the consumer-side of it had been creeping back into the headlines.

The incredible popularity of Pokémon Go pushed it front and center.

For those unfamiliar, Pokémon (Pocket Monsters) began its life in the mid-1990s as a video game. A generation of kids have grown up or are familiar with the game. It’s a shared cultural touchstone (enough so that Google made an April Fool’s joke out of it in 2014 based on its map services):

Interestingly, that joke led to Pokémon Go.

Of course given this smashing success, media and game publishers are asking themselves, “Is AR the new platform? Should we start making Augmented or Virtual Reality content?”

Nope. No more than you ever needed to, anyway.

Pokémon Go didn’t prove the value of AR; AR simply reinforced the value of Pokémon.

The mechanics that make up the game — searching, collecting, competing — lend themselves to locational and augmented enhancements and make the ergonomics of them sensible and simple.

“AR has never proven to be popular, and I don’t think it has just now. I think Pokémon proved to be popular, and this AR just happens to be exactly the right metaphor for Pokémon, right?” says Rami Ismail, Vlambeer, game developer in The Guardian.

It’s rarely the technology itself that makes the experience; it’s the solution the technology affords that is the experience. This is true of VR, QR codes, video, audio, interactives, and any other media. Ease and newness are nice, but the ergonomics/user experience impediments can’t be ignored.

For example, I’ve never been a fan of AR within printed newspapers because it requires readers to:

  • Break the flow of their reading.

  • Put down the newspaper somewhere flat.

  • Get on a phone.

  • Open the app.

  • Align and wait. 

  • Watch.

  • Then put the phone down.

  • Restart reading (if they haven’t been distracted playing with their phones).

Firstly, and importantly, it breaks the “user experience” of the newspaper. Secondly, the effort required is large (relative to just reading the newspaper).

And for what? Is the payoff going to be so great it’s worth their time and effort? Are they even likely to bother breaking their reading flow?

Transitioning to an AR view (or any other digital medium) may be simpler on a phone, but the tradeoffs are still valid. Tech-friendly consumers dislike disruption as much as non-tech consumers. The more effort required of the user, the greater the payoff must be.

The tool is the gimmick. The overall experience is the return. Pokémon Go hit the sweet spot for the confluence of AR, Google Map services, and the game’s fundamental experience. That’s why it succeeded; not because it happened to use a particular technology.

If you’ve got a sweet spot for your product’s core experience and a new medium, go for it. But consider your users’ investment in your existing experience(s). If there’s no clear synergy, invest in refining the user experience in the new feature to lower their opportunity costs. Or consider if you should bother at all.

About Chuck Blevins

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