Pokémon GO: Augmented Reality or not?

It’s been a couple of months since Pokémon GO came out along with the endless debate about whether it should be considered Augmented Reality or not. I know the topic is old now but I’ve been working on my masters thesis and, hey, what better source of procrastination could there be other than contributing to this debate?

The short answer for this is: Yup. It absolutely and most certainly is AR.

The long answer I believe requires some explanation. Most of the sources that claim the game is not an AR application all seem to feed from the same argument: Augmented reality requires computer vision and dynamic mapping of the real world environment around you. That is the most common misconception about AR, that it needs to feel real and blend in the environment as if it is a part of it. While absolute immersion is the ultimate goal that companies are trying to achieve with AR, it certainly is not the definition of it.

Even though we are still pretty much far away from this, it doesn’t stop Pokémon GO from being an Augmented Reality application.

Let’s first have a look at Wikipedia for the definition, which does not always have to be scientifically accurate whatsoever:

Augmented reality (AR) is a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data.

What you can understand from this definition is that AR applications don’t even need to visually display anything at all. So the argument that the Pokémon inside the game don’t blend in with the environment is refuted by the first sentence in AR’s Wikipedia entry. If you don’t want to take Wikipedia as the main source, let’s have a look at a scientific survey carried out by Ronald T. Azuma in 1997 In his survey, Azuma defines AR as having the following three characteristics:

1) Combines real and virtual

This one is easy. While playing Pokémon GO with AR mode enabled, you see the Pokémon on top of the real world seen through the camera of your device, hence combining the real and the virtual.

2) Interactive in real time

In the context of video games, real-time means the game updates itself in really small amounts of time, having a somewhat higher frame rate than some threshold (usually 30). Some devices may run the game slower due to hardware constraints but we know the game itself is developed to run in real-time.

3) Registered in 3-D

This one is a little technical. Being registered in 3D means that each object, in this case Pokémon, PokéStops and Gyms should be located in a 3D context inside the game. There are two different screens in the game where we can check if this characteristic holds. First screen is obviously the Pokémon catching screen with AR mode enabled. In this screen, the Pokémon has a position with respect to the player, meaning when you rotate the camera, the Pokémon might go out of sight. This indicates that the object is registered in a 3D scene where the player is in the middle. This is actually the only screen which people refer to while discussing whether the game is AR or not. However, there is another one, the free roaming screen, where you just walk around visiting PokéStops and Gyms, or engaging with Pokémon. In this screen, both you and each of the aforementioned objects are located in the real world, and you can only interact with them when you are within certain proximity of each of them.

Considering the definition we just had a look at, AR is actually a much broader term that most people seem to think. In these terms, every navigation app on your phone is actually AR. Audio guides on museums where the audio is different in each room and seem to be coming from a certain direction, are actually AR. And yes, Pokémon GO is absolutely and most certainly AR.

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