I was at least three days late to the Pokémon GO party--an eternity in social media terms.
It wasn’t until a friend wrote a Facebook post about watching people descend on a previously quiet park in the Sydney suburb of Rhodes that I figured something was up. Driving past the scene, he observed a New Year’s Eve-sized crowd hunched over their smartphones, the surrounding streets reduced to traffic chaos.
In case you’ve been living under a digital rock, Pokémon GO is a free augmented reality (AR) app developed by a company called Niantic, which recently spun off from Google. (As an aside, it’s no surprise the app asks you to sign in with your Gmail account.)
The game cleverly combines your smartphone’s camera and location services to direct you to real-world sites, called Pokéstops. Hold up your phone and your avatar goes hunting for cute little Pokémon. Find one and the characters are transposed over the real-world image. Just swipe up a few times and your Pokéball catches the characters. And like all good games, you’re rewarded with points (stardust), power, and other incentives I’ve yet to discover.
Officially launched on July 6 in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, this app has literally gone nuts. Web-server-meltdown nuts. Top-of-the-download-charts nuts.
Of course, mainstream media is going nuts on the negative angles. They’re quoting experts about the dangers of wandering around the streets staring at your phone and being hit by a bus. Niantic can read your emails via the Gmail sign-in (which is a genuine worry). And criminals in Missouri even used the app to lure unsuspecting players into dark alleys where they were robbed.
It would be easy to side with the cynics and call Pokémon GO a stupid waste of time. We could proclaim that it doesn’t make sense to walk huge distances to catch nonexistent monsters, or that it’s just a fad and won’t amount to much.
Besides–where’s the business case? What’s the marketing angle?
Similar remarks were said about the internet back in the day, and we all know how that turned out.
In truth, Marketers in Australia and elsewhere across the Asia Pacific have been eyeing AR, 360 video, and other technologies for some time now. But aside from 360 videos on Facebook, we haven’t really found something that clicks for the masses.
That is, until Pokémon GO. As cutesy as it seems, we’re witnessing AR’s tipping point, to borrow from Malcolm Gladwell. Here’s why.
1. The stock market went crazy: Nintendo, the original Pokémon developer, owns a stake in the franchise and witnessed a $14.5 billion jump in its market value in the days following the game’s release. It’s betting Pokémon GO is the first of many AR apps for the mass market.
2. It passes the simplicity test: Forget Google Cardboard or expensive VR headsets. Smartphones win again. Once you’ve downloaded the app, it’s simple to sign up and get going.
3. Technology convergence and innovation matters: Pokémon GO neatly combines existing technologies: mobile broadband, powerful smartphones, cameras, maps, and the gyroscope. As a bonus, you get annoying music (you can turn it off). Think about the innovation trajectory; each of these elements will continue to improve, rapidly.
4. It’s fun: Entertainment, emotional engagement, and video are fundamental marketing drivers. Pokémon GO presses all the right buttons.
5. Hello, social: Thanks to social, of course is game spreading like wildfire. But that’s the point. AR needed to tap into the social zeitgeist, and finally it has crossed the threshold.
Finally, about that marketing angle: Mass-market AR adoption via smartphone games will pave the way for creative, new forms of digital marketing, from in-app purchases and branding to Google Ads and custom apps.
Let’s just hope the innovation to come takes us beyond throwbacks to retro ’90s gaming because the naysayers and digital laggards haven’t yet found a reason to join the party.