The announcement video for Pokémon Go, an “augmented reality” game for smartphones, opens by asking us to “imagine Pokémon in the real world.” And imagination is exactly what you’ll need to consider the game as landing anywhere within the realm of augmented reality.

Pokémon Go might be a decent game (I can’t say for sure; a week in the closed beta ‘Field Test’ didn’t give me much feel for it), but if it wants to be judged as an “augmented reality” game then it’s either a terrible augmented reality game, or it’s playing fast and loose with the definition.

Now I get it, definitions are mutable and often have blurry boundaries. But we need to at least be able to see the shape of a definition in order for it to be useful to discourse. If we let that go we risk ending up in a world where a word like “literally” can literally mean “figuratively,” which can make a sentence like this figuratively illegible.

Let’s start with the announcement video I mentioned. It’s actually a great concept video for AR. Titled Discover Pokémon in the Real World with Pokémon GO!, and viewed a whopping 25 million times, it implies in no uncertain terms that users would see Pokémon convincingly hiding in real world environments, with players physically throwing Poké Balls in order to capture them, and that crowds would gather to see Mewtwo flying around Times Square in an epic battle (you know, the kind of stuff that Magic Leap is actually doing). Meanwhile the actual gameplay appears pathetic by comparison and is shown for mere seconds following the three minute CGI piece that came before it.

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What 'Pokémon Go' Could Be Like if it Was Really Augmented Reality
pokemon-go-augmented-reality-(5)
This is a best-case scenario. If there’s anything but a large open space in front of you, the creature will be unconvincingly mashed into it. I’d show you a worse example, except the developers have requested that press not post any screenshots beyond what’s been provided to them.

So in what ways is Pokémon Go ‘augmented reality’? Nearest I can tell it has something to do with the camera view that, upon discovering a Pokémon, shows the creature haphazardly superimposed on whatever your camera happens to be looking at.

The thing is, in order to ‘augment’ reality, the system doing the augmentation needs to know something about your reality; like how Snapchat knows the shape of your face so that it can augment it in interesting ways. But Pokémon Go knows nothing more about your reality than almost any other app on your phone.

Because of this, you’ll frequently find Pokémon floating superimposed into walls or other objects in a way that doesn’t make sense, with their scale totally misrepresented against a backdrop that doesn’t suit their size at all. When you walk toward the Pokémon they’ll simply slide along the ground at a fixed distance from you, passing through whatever real world obstacles might be in their way. This isn’t augmenting reality, it’s merely conflicting with it.

Aside from the superimposed camera view, which you can (and likely will) opt to turn off with a small button at the top right of the app, the only other argument to be made for Pokémon Go as an AR app is that in order to find Pokémon and other game objectives (like gyms), you have to physically move around the world (a quick stroll up the street might reveal a few).

pokemon-go-augmented-reality-(4)But unlike the CGI video, you won’t find any Pokémon hiding behind trees or battling atop bridges. You’ll simply be looking at the map on your smartphone (which takes the form of a stylized version of the sorts of roadmaps you’d find on Google Maps) and occasionally see a Pokémon pop up on the screen. Then, whether you’re 10 feet for 50 feet from them, just tap on your smartphone and you’ll be engaged into the superimposed camera view to capture the creature.

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Immersive Game Design Lessons from 'Pokémon Go'

Once again, not AR. Unless, that is, that we also want to consider Google Maps, GrubHub—and any other app that shows my location and things around me on a map—augmented reality. There’s no doubt that tracking is a necessity for great AR. But GPS-level tracking doesn’t have anywhere close to the fidelity you’d need to, say, actually feel like you’re walking up to a Pokémon in a way that allows it to be convincingly anchored to your view of the real world. And without that—if the augmented information isn’t convincingly integrated into our reality—it’s, at best, a HUD, and at worst, just like any old app.

Pokémon Go could be an amazing AR app, if only they delivered anything remotely like what was shown in their audacious CGI video. Until then, let’s not muddle the definition of augmented reality lest we want it to become a meaningless buzzword. For those interested in the game (even if it isn’t AR proper), today marks the end of its closed beta, and it’s expected to launch later this month on Android and iOS and will be free-to-play when it does.

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  • JoeD

    “Now I get it, definitions are mutable and often have blurry boundaries. ”

    Into the trash with my dictionary then!

    • YzaiCreate

      Well… yeah if it’s an old one. Dictionaries are changed to suit the language, not the other way around, and the english language is super fudgable and reactive.

  • Sam Illingworth

    Wow, talk about overselling!

    Maybe if the Pokemon Company is still going it and when Microsoft’s AR takes off…

  • Michael Miller

    Yeah. I started to realize that. I fooled myself into thinking it qas an early prototype but I don’t think it’s getting any better. This is a horrible way for nintendo to start on mobile. A boring social game that loses it’s purpose after a month and a really shoddy “AR” game.

  • contact trixistudios

    Here is a (rough) video of one of our projects running on Project Tango- you can more imagine what Pokemon would feel like if they had a motion sensor
    http://www.trixistudios.com/#!spiritcreatures/bu3gu
    https://youtu.be/X3WtHmv0evc

    • Frikster42

      Jesus jetski christ! How have you guys been outside of my radar for so long! I thought I knew about every AR/VR company worth knowing about!

    • Frikster42

      Please make a romance-themed part in your project. I cannot express how badly I want to spontaneously go on an AR date. Like have the creatures interact with us to get the chemistry going (or not going if we’re a bad match…). Imagine the success stories: “Oh I met my boyfriend/girlfriend while we were talking to the forest demon in the park on Main street. He was was crying about King shiba inu stealing his stick which happens to also be his arm.”

      • contact trixistudios

        ha! we’ll see!

  • MauiJerry

    VR means very specific things to people who have been doing it for decades. Some researchers have tried to account for MarketingSpeak by creating continuums such as Stapleton’s Mixed Fantasy. for those wanting to a quick look deeper … http://www.slideshare.net/isdale/what-is-vr-virtual-reality-june2016

  • David Mulder

    Where does this idea come from that AR is limited to only graphical augmentation? I mean, Ingress – Pokemon Go’s predecessor – has no camera features at all, and yet it has never been criticized for being augmented reality. The augmentation isn’t in the styling of the map, but creating a reality that isn’t real which still has a lot to do with the real world. Going on real world hikes specifically to capture virtual points – as I think was quite common for Ingress players – is a testament that this augmentation was quite successful.

    Of course this doesn’t mean that computer vision and augmentation of graphical images is a very interesting field, but I think the term ‘AR’ can be used by games like Ingress and Zombies, Run! as well. The defining characteristic is whether the player will at some level consider himself in an a different reality than other non users.

    • Kristjan Hlaj

      Actually no. The actual definition “a technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user’s view of the real world, thus providing a composite view.” a.k.a. our real world augmented with computer generated stuff. And here also I do contest the original article. Pokemon GO is in fact augmented reality however it is done horribly badly…

      • Peter McGuinness

        Actually, also no. Superimposition is not augmentation; the key feature of AR is that it locates computer generated objects within the real world. That’s what distinguishes real AR from a HUD and leads to the immersive quality which is a goal of both AR and VR.

        • Kristjan Hlaj

          Well yes, you are right, however article does speculate that they use GPS-level tracking and goes further by saying that it’s simply not good enough for AR so as such I still believe that Pokemon GO is in fact augmented reality however it is done horribly badly.

  • DiGiCT Ltd

    Seems Nintendo is now better in making videos instead of games as the video is awesome and the game is not.

  • bschuler

    So Pokemon Go is essentially doing to AR what Oculus has been doing to VR? I agree, we need more terms and better limits/descriptions. Sitting in a chair looking around holding a joystick playing a Mario clone is not virtual reality. In reality you can walk, pickup things, etc.. AND THIS IS NOT VIRTUALLY THAT. Instead it is “sitting in a chair looking around within game.” I find it annoying when people (usually complaining about VR being boring) say VR this or VR that.. when it isn’t really VR at all.

  • Tom

    Kind of wish they were making it for VR instead…I think it would be a much better looking product although it wouldn’t be as big a money maker (due to a smaller market) but the possibilities are much greater.

  • Ar vr whats it to you

    This is an idiotic flame war internet rant. What you are experiencing is what we who work in emerging tech and futurology define as “deceptive disappointment.” You’ve allowed marketing materials to build up your expectations (as they are meant to) and the final product cannot match up with your fantastical imaginings of what is actually pretty good tech. I bet you compain that the televised cutscenes of video games cant match the actual gameplay of console games. smh.

    • Rob Haskins

      ” I bet you compain that the televised cutscenes of video games cant match the actual gameplay of console games.”

      Thats a fair complaint.

  • Rob Haskins

    I enjoy it, but it could be so much more