Pokémon Go gets better augmented reality thanks to ARKit on iOS

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Niantic has had crude augmented reality for its Pokémon Go mobile game from the outset. But soon it will launch an enhanced AR experience on iOS 11 smartphones using Apple’s new ARKit technology.

The company implemented AR in a way that wasn’t just a gimmick for an app that has been downloaded more than 800 million times. The enhanced AR improves the gameplay experience in tangible ways, such as depicting each Pokémon creature in full 3D. That way, you can sneak up behind a creature or move close to it in a stealthy way, allowing you to capture it more easily. If you rush toward a Pokémon, it may just flee. That sort of AR could help the game stand out further in the $50 billion mobile game market. The update will roll out within a matter of days.

“Our theme is getting people outside into the real world, and this fits the philosophy of the company,” said Niantic CEO John Hanke during a press event at the company’s headquarters in San Francisco. “We’re trying to do a nice job integrating ARKit into the game in a meaningful way. We are trying to bring a little bit of fantasy into the real world into everybody’s lives and incorporate physical real things in our environment.”

Above: Dean Takahashi with a Snorlax in Pokemon Go’s new AR feature.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

Niantic hopes that AR gaming will now be available to hundreds of millions of devices that are running iOS 11, which includes iPhone 6 and newer smartphones, fifth-generation iPads, and all iPad Pro models.

Greg Joswiak is vice president of product marketing for iOS, iPod, and iPhone at Apple. He said, “We got a taste of AR, the ability to combine the digital world with the real world with the first generation of Pokémon Go. It showed this incredible appetite for AR, which is why people have been chasing it in the labs for years. With ARKit, we allow developers to dare to include things they had never dreamed of doing in an app. It has gone from a niche to a reality overnight.”

The new AR+ feature builds on core AR gameplay in Pokémon Go, which wasn’t very good. (I previously just turned it off because it burned the battery on my phone and it didn’t add to the game).

Above: Pokemon now appear at scale in augmented reality.

Image Credit: Niantic

After activating the new AR+ feature in encounter mode, individual Pokémon will be more accurately positioned based on their surroundings and environment thanks to the six degrees of freedom the technology provides. By utilizing ARKit’s advanced 3D AR scaling, a Pokémon’s size will be more accurately based on the world around them, changing in perspective and size as Trainers move closer or further away. Now, as you can see in my picture with the Snorlak, the creature’s size will be accurately reflected in a smartphone image.

With AR+ mode, Trainers can now get closer to a Pokémon to receive a special capture bonus, but Pokémon are aware of the physical proximity of Trainers, so they must approach carefully, as it may flee if a person comes too close too quickly. Getting closer to a Pokémon using AR+ has unique gameplay benefits, including being awarded the new Expert Handler bonus, which provides more XP and Stardust (the latter being points that you can use to make your creatures stronger).

Hanke said that Pokémon Go pushes mobile tech to the edge, using the camera, the sensors, and graphics. That puts a lot of stress on the battery, and early versions of the app drained the batteries of iPhone users. But Hanke said the new AR feature uses less battery than the prior version.

Above: Now you can pose with your favorite creature in Pokemon Go’s augmented reality mode.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

“To John’s point, they didn’t do a quick implementation,” Joswiak said. “They did cool stuff.”

Hanke said, “The best applications are the ones that have a reason for existing beyond the AR feature. We are not trying to create the entirety of the value from just that feature. We want to get gameplay into people’s lives as a daily habit. To get you to walk. We are not trying to build just normal mobile games. We are pushing the integration with the real world.”

The AR feature is one of a number of things that have kept Niantic busy. Most recently, Niantic rolled out 50 new creatures of the Hoenn region, with weather effects that make the creatures stronger or weaker based on the real world weather. Hanke declined to say if Niantic would work with Google and its ARCore technology.

Niantic tried to put on an event in Chicago this summer, but it found that the cellular network couldn’t support the huge numbers of players that gathered for the event in downtown Chicago, Hanke said.

“We had our learning in Chicago,” he said. “We came away knowing how to do those better. In Yokohama, we had several hundred thousand people.”

The company has also done events in a remote part of Japan and South Korea.

Above: The orange meter shows this Pokemon is getting wise to your presence.

Image Credit: Niantic

“We’re geared to do a number of those large events in 2018 too,” he said.

Niantic was incubated within Google and spun out on its own in 2015. Nintendo and The Pokémon Company own stakes in Niantic. The company is also making Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, and it operates the location-based game Ingress as well.

The executives wouldn’t talk about Harry Potter, but Joswiak said, “This is not a one-time thing. We continue to bring it along. To us, this is a big deal. It’s not just a gimmick.”

“ARKit gives us a way to really show people in a visual and impactful way,” Hanke said. “It’s an amazing piece of technology. AR is just getting on track as we move toward some company making amazing AR glasses in the future.”

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