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Pokemon Go Could Set Off a New Wave of Augmented Reality Games

Pokemon Go has taken the world by storm since its release last week: The Pokemon-themed mobile game that tasks players with catching Pokemons reportedly already has more Android app installs than Tinder in the U.S., and the game’s surprise success pushed Nintendo’s stock up 25 percent Monday. But Pokemon Go isn’t the first augmented reality game, and it likely won’t be the last. In fact, the startup behind the game is already eyeing partnerships with other entertainment companies for new game franchises.

From Field Trip to Pokemon Go

Pokemon Go has been a huge boon for both Nintendo and the Pokemon Company, which holds the rights for the animated franchise. Lesser known is that the game is actually being produced by Niantic Labs, a San Francisco-based startup that was incorporated as a Google subsidiary in 2011 and spun out of the company last year when Google reorganized under the Alphabet moniker. Niantic is being funded by Google, Nintendo and the Pokemon company as well as Fuji TV and a few other high-profile investors.

Niantic’s team includes some key members of Google’s former Maps team. While at Google, Niantic first built Field Trip, an app that would notify users of murals, historic buildings and other interesting places around them while walking through a city — think of it as a kind of city guide for mobile devices that sends out alerts whenever you walk by something noteworthy. Field Trip made use of Google’s treasure trove of geographic data as well as third-party data sources for an augmented reality experiences, letting you explore the real world with the aid of your mobile device and location-based data.

Soon after Field trip, Niantic Labs published Ingress, an augmented reality game with a science fiction story that’s very similar to Pokemon Go: Users join teams, collect so-called “exotic matter” at locations all over the world, and fight for the control of virtual “portals.” Ingress uses geo-location data to overlay its gameplay over the physical world, and reportedly has over one million active players all around the world.

Ingress is in many ways a darker, more dystopian predecessor to Pokemon Go, and the two games are in fact joined at the hip: Not only has Pokemon Go adopted a lot of its gameplay from Ingress, but Niantic Labs actually used some of the location data provided by Ingress players to map out the world of Pokemon Go. The new game, for example, uses so-called Pokestops — real-world locations that users have to visit in order to receive in-game items. Many of these are adopted from Ingress data, Ingress CEO John Hanke told Mashable this week. Altogether, Ingress users have submitted 15 million locations to the company.

From Alternate Reality to Augmented Reality

Even before Ingress, multiplayer games occasionally combined the real world with online coordination — and Hollywood long tried to capitalize on this to promote its franchises. One early example was “I Love Bees,” a so-called alternate reality game meant to promote Microsoft’s Halo video games. The game, which was loosely connected to Halo’s plot, prompted users to scour websites for hidden clues, cooperate with others to collectively solve massive puzzles and even answer calls on more than 200 pay phone around the world. ABC later used a similar game to promote its TV show “Lost.”

However, these early alternate reality games made little to no use of mobile devices, and real-world locations were used sparingly. Games like Ingress and Pokemon Go on the other hand offer the ability to add virtual challenges to location almost all over the world, which makes them a lot more scalable. They also make extensive use of mobile technology. Pokemon Go for example lets users switch to an augmented reality view, combining the point of view of a phone camera with virtual objects, and letting Pokemons appear on sidewalks, in public squares or even in people’s living rooms.

The ability to superimpose Pokemons over real-world imagery is reminiscent of some of the early concepts for Google’s ill-fated Glass hardware, as well as Microsoft’s HoloLens technology. However, Niantic labs CEO John Hanke told Variety last year that it may take a long time before these kinds of technologies are actually ripe for consumers. “We didn’t want to wait for that,” he quipped.

Mobile phones on the other hand are here now, and Pokemon Go won’t be the last game to make use of them to combine narratives and gameplay with real-world exploration. Niantic has been talking to other entertainment companies about building additional games. And eventually, Niantic aims to give other companies tools to build their own games and experiences. “Our ultimate goal is to build a platform,” Hanke told Variety.

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