For 'Pokemon Go' Creator, Augmented Reality Games Are Just the Start

Niantic working on a couple of new games

John Hanke Credit: Niantic

The overnight success of Pokémon GO was actually a set-back. Speaking to an audience of developers at the Austin Game Conference this week, Niantic chief executive John Hanke explained that the surge of demand actually slowed down their initial plans for more content.

"It was a wild, wild ride," he says, going on to recall getting "personal, physical threats" from would-be players in Brazil and India that wanted the game released in their territory. Every creator, Hanke says, wants to have software that’s used by as many people as possible.

And now that the game has stabilized, players can expect a pattern of major, quarterly updates. "We have another big launch planned for later this year," he adds.

Glixel sat down with Hanke for his thoughts on the future of games, reality, and entertainment. This is, he says, the beginning of the augmented reality revolution.

Hanke also believes there's a misconception about what AR is. To him, it means "taking the real world, and adding interesting stuff to it." That can be any addition, be it utilitarian, more fun in the sense of games, or simply more interesting.

"Amazon is working on an in-ear Alexa system."

He says that audio-only AR might actually win over the visual AR we use today. "Amazon is working on an in-ear Alexa system," Hanke says, going on to muse how cool an audio-only game will be, "which I hope to get to at some point."

The revolution, he notes, "is much bigger than just an AR-view rendered on a phone using [Apple's] ARKit or [Google's] ARCore." According to Hanke, the visual aspect that people think of for AR gaming is really just one slice of a very big pie.

He talks about devices like the Pokemon GO Plus, a Bluetooth wristlet with LED lights and vibration. Niantic wondered if they could create a device that will alert you to something interesting around you, without having to look at your phone all the time. "I wouldn't say it’s perfect. It was our first try." The AR experience can bring all the senses into play, and Hanke sees these experiments as important for designers to try. While Hanke said the company is working on a couple of new games, he declined to talk about them.

Niantic is also looking at glasses, investing and exploring them as a "hunch," predicting they will streamline, optimize and improve with time. He describes virtual reality's immersive headsets as "the ultimate escapism." And while it might have its place, like cinema, John Hanke believes that AR games and AR experiences can be as portable – and as ubiquitous – as music is today. Augmentation, he says, "Makes your walk to work, all of a sudden, whatever you want it to be. You're adding a soundtrack to your life."

Hanke poses warnings for would-be AR developers. "Just because you leverage the visual technique… doesn't mean you'll have a compelling experience." He encourages designers to think about ways of connecting technology with the real world. For example, seeing a table-top game brought to life on a surface is not as satisfying as seeing a fantasy creature in a park on the walk to work. Both are augmented, but one transforms the day-to-day world into something unusual.

And there's a social element as well. "People are hungry for real world experiences," he adds. "If you look at festivals, generally: music festivals, yoga festivals, cooking festivals." Niantic's values revolve around encouraging users to go outside, explore, exercise, meet new people.

The AR revolution has the potential to change the world as much as the music revolution before it, and add as much richness of mood and experience. Hanke says he is optimistic that, if designed properly, melding technology, design, and the real world "will make us happier."