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Is technology a catch (’em) all?

I can hear the pitch rooms right now…“Pokémon Go but for dating.” “Pokémon Go but for groceries.” “Pokémon Go but for emergency boiler repair.”

Technology is nothing if not faddy, and those of us that were wondering where Augmented Reality’s (AR) killer app was going to come from have now been answered. As I type this, I am literally watching two grown men across the canal from me, catching monsters, and I’m not ashamed to say that I’m tempted to pop out in a minute and join them.

Of course, the technology that drives the phenomenon that is Pokémon Go is hardly new. Marketeers, for one, have been trying to activate with AR for at least 8 years. Platforms like Aurasma and Blippar have been around for years, but have arguably failed to ignite the mainstream; Pokémon Go developers, Niantic, have had Ingress, a massive multiplayer AR game, running since 2012.

So why has Pokémon Go caught our imagination now?

The simple answer is that it’s exactly the right combination of IP, technology and experience, all meshing seamlessly with one another. It is a mistake to assume that AR will “automagically” work for your business problem in the same way. This strikes right at the heart of how we consider technology within the creative process. Simply throwing some cool new tech at the problem will rarely yield results. Instead, we must deeply interrogate the mechanics of the tech and allow the creative expression to emerge from it.

To paraphrase Marcus Aurelius (or Hannibal Lecter if you’d prefer), we must ask of any technology, “What is it, in and of itself?” What are its mechanisms?  What can we utilise from its inputs and outputs? This is the very core of design thinking and it applies equally to technology as it would to brand.

Abstractly, all digital technology is essentially input -> computation -> output. So what are the inputs in the case of Pokémon? Location derived from GPS, mapping drawn from Google, player position and orientation from the device sensors, a feed from the camera and server-collected data on other players’ activity. It’s worth mentioning that this combination of elements allows for one form of AR – while others might rely on image recognition algorithms or a more complex set of sensor inputs (such as that in use with Microsoft’s HoloLens.) 

In fact, in tech terms, the mechanics of Pokémon Go are actually quite shallow. Our phones cannot (yet!) give a true understanding of the environment they’re in. From mapping data we can only broadly derive if we are near parkland or water (and therefore spawn appropriate monsters to catch), but those digital assets cannot interact directly with the environment. Hence, the only available action is to throw an image of a Pokéball at an image of a Pokémon superimposed on your camera’s feed. This works so well because the game’s core mechanic and experience - discovering monsters and capturing them - is precisely aligned with the essence of the technology itself.

Achieving this is no fluke. Simply placing cool tech on top of an unrelated concept and expecting it to magically engage an audience is doomed to fail. In particular, AR and VR can suffer from an ‘uncanny valley’ effect where the more that they try to simulate the real world, the higher our expectations are that they behave like the real world. Fail, and the suspension of disbelief is broken and our engagement with it. Those with Nintendo’s Wiis collecting dust will know what I mean.

It is well established that technology can be a valuable disruptor and engager. But technology is really just an enabler, part of the creative toolkit. To use it successfully, technical thinking must be deeply embedded within the creative process and not applied as a ‘magical’ layer. Instead, examine your goals, the needs of your audience and the expression of your brand. As you unpack that into a creative experience, identify where the core mechanics of technology can reduce friction, provide dynamism and generate delight. The answer to your problem right now isn’t AR, VR, 3-D printing or blockchains. It’s in embracing technical thinking at the heart of your creative ideation.

…and Pokémon Go for dating is a dreadful, dreadful idea.

Illustration by Oliver Thein

Andrew Dobson is Technical Director at Wolff Olins London. You can follow him @andrewdotdobson