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Pokémon Go and the Future of Collaboration Technology

Jul 15, 2016, by Ben Fineman
Tags: Metaverse Working Group, Video, Voice & Collaboration

I’m feeling old today. As a trailing-end member of Generation X, the feeling has been creeping up on me, but with all the recent excitement over the Pokémon Go launch lauding how it “captures childhood nostalgia” for today’s adults, I realized—I had never even played a Pokémon game. Not because I was too cool for it (anyone heard of Magic the Gathering, my jam in high school?) but because I was too old—I was already in college when the first Pokémon game launched almost 18 years ago. So my first experience playing a Pokémon game was when I bit the bullet over the weekend and installed Pokémon Go. And boy am I excited—but perhaps not for the reasons you may think. We’ve been approaching a liminal point for augmented reality, and Pokémon Go is just the catalyst we needed to push it over the edge.

Left: Pokémon Go augmented reality

Smartphone apps that use augmented reality represent a confluence of amazing technology. Orbiting GPS satellites tell us our location down to the meter, wireless data networks keep us connected nearly anywhere, high-quality cameras let us view the world in real time, and ever increasing mobile processor power enables us to actually do useful things with all of this information. The idea of using augmented reality for smartphone apps is not new. The first time I remember using one was seven years ago when Yelp introduced their “monocle” feature as an Easter egg. Essentially you could look through your smartphone to see reviews and information about nearby businesses overlaid on the view of the world around you. A neat proof of concept, but ultimately no more than a gimmick. Similarly, augmented reality for gaming is not a new idea either. Google launched its own location-based augmented reality game called Ingress almost four years ago to an enthusiastic reception by a relatively small number of players. Ingress was developed by an internal Google startup called Niantic, which Google spun out last year.

If Niantic sounds familiar, it should. They took their Ingress experience (and location data) and found a new partner in Nintendo to develop Pokémon Go. While some may argue that Pokémon Go is just a reskinned version of Ingress with more pocket monsters and less sci-fi, no one can argue with their success. Less than a week after launch, Pokémon Go has already overtaken Twitter in terms of active users. Millions of people around the world are all coming to the simultaneous realization that, hey, this augmented reality thing is pretty neat—and are beginning to consider how it might actually be useful.

On nearly the same day that Pokémon Go was launched last week, Internet2’s developer edition of the Microsoft Hololens showed up at our office. The Hololens, if you haven’t heard, is Microsoft’s vision for augmented reality as a new computing platform. I’ve been skeptical. Years of promotional videos from tech companies depicting amazing visions that ultimately prove to be vaporware will do that to you. And if you’ve seen the Hololens videos, they do seem pretty fanciful. But I’m here to tell you that the Hololens is the real deal. Just like the Oculus Rift showed us that convincing virtual reality is actually possible, Hololens shows us that convincing augmented reality is possible as well. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not without rough edges. For example, typing my Microsoft password using a floating keyboard and finger tap is excruciating, and yes, the field of view is small (holograms do not fill your peripheral vision). But I’ll be darned if I didn’t plaster my cubicle with half a dozen virtual screens, drop holograms all around the office, and then feel a little empty when I took the glasses off and all my virtual toys were gone. The technology is good enough that it begins to convince your brain that the virtual elements are part of your reality—and this is when things get really interesting.

Right: Collaborating over distance using Hololens augmented reality

Virtual and augmented reality are two ends of the same spectrum that will end up converging in the middle. Differentiating one from the other depends entirely upon how much of your reality you replace with virtual elements. What’s interesting is that once we can modify our reality at will, how we consume, create, and interact with information is limited only by our imaginations. At first, we are just extending modes of interaction with which we are already familiar. Hololens lets me have as many screens on my walls as I want, but that’s nothing I couldn’t already do with real screens (though it could get expensive). But I can now also take the content out of the screen, as with Case Western’s life-size holographic anatomy lesson. And this is a mode of interaction I couldn’t do before. Similarly, with distance collaboration, Hololens lets me float a screen in front of me and Skype with my (non-Hololens) friends, but this too is nothing new. Where it gets interesting is when my friends are holograms in my space, and I am holograms in theirs (“holoportation”). The potential for immersive collaboration here is amazing, especially for those of us who spent years messing around with camera angles, eye contact, and screen sizes for immersive telepresence systems.

Users all over the world are realizing the compelling capabilities of augmented reality as they chase virtual monsters over the physical landscape. Platforms like the Hololens show us that pocket-sized screens are not the end game for visual interfaces, and that consumer-available immersive augmented reality experiences are just around the corner. Networks like Internet2 remind us what’s possible when connectivity and bandwidth are plentiful. It’s an exciting time for collaboration technology as we embark upon this next convergence of capabilities. The possibilities for the next generation of collaboration technologies are limited only by our imaginations.

To participate in the conversation about next generation collaboration through virtual and augmented reality, considering joining the Metaverse Working Group.