If you believe the creator of the world’s most popular augmented reality game, augmented reality is still very much in its infancy.
Niantic has experienced a high level of continued success with its 2016 mobile game “Pokémon GO.” To speak about the game’s evolution and the state of augmented reality in gaming, Niantic CEO John Hanke presented his philosophy on the technology at the Game Developers Conference Thursday. In a wide-ranging, idealistic talk, he explored where the company established its roots in the augmented reality space, where he saw it going in the short term and some of the wild implications that exist if the tech community invests its time and energy in trying to exploit it.
“You hear a lot of hype around AR,” he said, indirectly alluding to the recent wave of new devices and technologies like Microsoft’s announcement last month of the Hololens 2. “It’s important to understand, we’re really talking about the potential for devices that are going to come out after the phone. I do believe there’s huge potential, but I believe that potential will come out in future devices.”
Using his own long history with maps and interest in creating real-world connections through our devices, he shared what he and his team at Niantic had learned from their time trying to add as much enjoyment and information to the world. Niantic was originally founded internally at Google and helped work on technologies like Google Maps and Google Earth, before using their expertise in location to explore games.
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They first did this through “Ingress” a mobile game of location-based “control” of specific points plotted through GPS. Hanke said Niantic took that experience and expanded it in the global phenomenon “Pokémon Go,” which he said has now had over 1 billion installs, in over 150 countries, earning over $2 billion in revenue.
The lessons learned through that, not only has informed the games that Niantic is making and wants to make. It has also shaped Hanke’s view around the possibilities of AR.
“We’re adding things to the world [in augmented reality], but the things we’re adding can deepen our understanding and appreciation of the world,” he said. “It can allow us to see the world in a fresh way…. It allows us to do that in a shared way and have these experiences together.”
Essentially, Hanke believes that in order to get that potential out of AR, there are three essential steps to take as technological capabilities expand. That involves mapping the world for AR, teaching AR how to contextualize that map intelligently and creating AR as a shared experience for all.
“We have to ask ourselves, ‘Is it something that is meaningful with a capital M. Is it something that’s going to affect our lives in a significant way,” he said. “What’s going on with phones is the pre-game. What’s going to happen with glasses in the future is the real deal.”
With the mapping of the world through AR, he was essentially pointing out the vast limits to the current usage of GPS. This AR mapping would plot everything on Earth, even the constantly changing points, like people walking or cars moving.
“We made Google Earth and Google Maps for you, for all the people so we can never be lost again,” he said. “The AR maps that we’re building, we’re building them for machines. I know that sounds like it’s for the “Terminator,” but It’s in the service of helping us be better human beings. It’s to allow us to better connect with the world.”
But, to Hanke, simply plotting out the world it virtually worthless if devices and the network itself cannot decipher the meaning or identification of specific objects. That’s where he believes AR has to move forward by imbuing that map with contextualized learning.
He gave the example of an AR mapping of a room with a table and chairs. If a designer of AR wanted to put a vase on the table and Pikachu in a chair, the technology would be useless for that task if it didn’t know how to differentiate the objects. Teaching a future AR map how to learn the contextualized functions, purposes and meanings of the objects it contains would allow Pikachu to sit in a chair and smell the flowers in a vase on the table.
Finally, he believes the future of AR and the devices that help propel it forward, should be social. It’s something that Niantic learned from the community who enjoyed playing its games and especially loved sharing them with other people.
“It really came from feedback, [players] loved the opportunity to meet new people and have a thing to do together outside,” Hanke said. “Just lots of love and positive reinforcement around that.”
He said that the future of AR would be far more beneficial if it involved everyone around, and if they could share in the same experiences. As an example, he described the many “Pokémon Go” events that bring together people all over the world. He also touted Niantic’s work with organizations like Ciclavia, Philly Free Streets and the Big Heritage, all events that get people outdoors, learning more about their neighbors and their neighborhoods.
“I think that tech can have a very positive impact on the world and I think this is a good example of that,” Hanke said.
He described games as “inherently shared experiences,” and a great solution to injecting this social aspect into the development of AR. However, at least in its current form, augmented reality could not be relied on as the main ingredient in a game.
“AR is not a magic bullet in games,” he said. “Our approach is to design things for AR that really can’t exist outside of AR … I think AR is the nice embellishment on the top. It’s the icing on the cake.”
Amid his belief that AR could be an enormous benefit to society, Hanke did noted that there is a darker path that humanity could take in regards to the technology. He showed a clip from a popular video by artist Keiichi Matsuda that explores what AR could look like if it ran wild.
As much as Hanke said he celebrated and agreed with the critical spirit behind Matsuda’s video, he also believed that it was the responsibilities of people like those in the GDC audience to take responsibility for what kind of future they were developing.
“I think [AR] is something that we need. I think it’s something that the world needs,” he said. “It is really up to us to build the future that we want to live in. And more importantly, it’s up to us to build the future that we want our kids to live in.”