It may be hard to believe, but Pokémon Go, the fastest selling smartphone game of all time, started out as a joke. In 2014, search giant Google – who are renowned for their April 1st tomfoolery – produced a spoof video entitled “Google Maps: Pokémon Challenge”. The video featured Pokémon trainers scouring the four corners of the earth to hunt the elusive pocket monsters, which appeared on their smartphone screens interacting with the real world around them. The prize at stake was the role of Pokémon Master at Google itself.
The video was a tongue-in-cheek look at the possibilities presented by Augmented Reality (AR), but the technology had been positioned as the future of mobile gaming a decade earlier. In 2006, Hewlett-Packard Laboratories produced the concept video, Roku’s Reward. It featured the protagonist, Roku, loading up a game on his smart device (this was pre-iPhone), before heading out onto the streets of San Francisco. The video proved enormously popular and was widely shared, inspiring others to further the concept of AR gaming.
Five members of the team behind Roku’s Reward went on to found Bristol-based app development agency Calvium, because they recognised the huge potential for location-based AR apps. Pokémon Go is certainly the most popular of this burgeoning genre, but as we shall see, it’s not the first.
Another concept that turned city streets into computer game – albeit in a very different way – was Pac-Manhattan. Launched in 2004, this bizarre but compelling concept took the familiar pill-popping, ghost eating arcade classic Pac-Man and scaled it up to city-size. Using the streets of New York as a real-world version of the Pac-Man maze, ten players brought the game to life. One player was dressed as Pac-Man himself and four more were dressed as the ghosts. They then headed out onto the streets of Manhattan and the chase began.
Each player on the street had a human controller in a central location, who they talked to on a mobile phone to relay their current position. This information was then logged on a computer. It was up to the controllers to use this information to guide their player around the streets, with the ghosts trying to catch Pac-Man and the yellow fellow himself trying to stay out of trouble (or find Power Pellets before turning the tables on the ghosts).
Undoubtedly a spectacle for NYC citizens, the game was hamstrung by two technological limits of the time – no cheap GPS devices and no city-wide cellular data. In this respect, technology was in the dark ages. It’s easy to imagine a modern version of this game using smartphones, GPS, 4G wireless and real-time tracking. As it happens, a year after the Google Maps: Pokémon Challenge video, April 1st, 2015 saw Google allow users to play Pac-Man on the streets of New York in Google Maps.
It was modern smartphone tech, with built-in cameras, GPS and other sensors, that allowed the vision shown in Roku’s Reward to be realised. The first game to marry GPS with AR and achieve real traction with gamers was Ingress. In Ingress, a player picked one of three factions before travelling around their local area, fighting an alien invasion by capturing ‘portals’ for their team. Ingress used Google Maps to indicate where these portals could be found. Once the player had arrived at one of these portals (often a landmark, piece of public art, monument, etc.), AR was used to overlay the real-life object with game information and allowed the user to capture the portal that it represented. This may sound a little familiar.
The egg hatches
Ingress was developed by Niantic, whose balloon logo will be familiar to anyone who spends a lot of time launching Pokémon Go. Niantic was created as an internal startup within Google, releasing Ingress in 2012, two years before the Google Maps/Pokémon spoof video. This is probably not a coincidence… Niantic was spun off from Google in 2015, receiving investment from Nintendo and The Pokémon Company and launched Pokémon Go, to the delight of many, in June 2016.
There is plenty of Ingress DNA in Pokémon Go, with the portals becoming PokéStops and gyms, while the Pokémon themselves tend to spawn in the same locations as in-game items in Ingress. Some keen Pokémon Go players have taken to using Ingress to help them track down rare Pokémon.
Despite what the internet may tell you, Pokémon Go is not revolutionary; rather an evolution of developments that have gone before it. The question is, how far can the game go and what will come next? One thing we can be sure of is that AR is here to stay, whether it is used to track down that elusive Snorlax, or to bring a heritage site to life.
The last frame of Google’s spoof video features the disclaimer; “Side effects of the Pokémon Challenge may include extreme excitement and a sense of accomplishment.” Never a truer word spoken in jest…
01/11/16 UPDATE: Following the release of this blog, the Calvium team have since published a paper discussing Pokemon Go & what it’s success means for those who seek to connect people with place via apps. You can download it for free below…
Calvium are a mobile app development agency based in Bristol, UK. We provide award-winning app development for those looking to engage people with place. By combining the digital and physical worlds, we work with our clients to tell stories and create enchanting experiences.
Image via Pixabay, CC0