Augmented reality hit an all-time high with the launch of the Pokemon Go app, almost immediately getting more daily users than Twitter and more "engagement" than Facebook.
The app was created by Niantic, a company that was spun out of Google and that had previously created the highly successful augmented reality (AR) game Ingress. According to research conducted by Index AR Solutions, in the next 15 years augmented reality is expected to rake in $105 billion in revenue, and if you thought this was just a passing fad for the kids, think again.
So what is augmented reality? And what does it mean for travel?
Let's start with the basics: How it works. As players open their Pokemon Go or Ingress app, virtual points of interest are layered over location-specific information using the GPS functionality of the phone or tablet. For Ingress and Pokemon Go, it's essentially a digital "capture the flag" team-play type of game (we readily admit this is an over-simplication of the games) that you play on the streets of a city, rather than in the woods behind your neighborhood.
The minds behind these massive multi-player games are led by Niantic's John Hanke; he worked with Google during the building of Google Maps and used that same knowledge to create the mapping structures for Ingress and Pokemon Go. And while Hanke and his team have clearly upended smartphone gaming with all the hype around Pokemon Go, it's clear that augmented reality apps are also changing the way people travel and explore, starting with these four ways.
1) It's getting people to travel for social meet-ups.
Ingress, which launched in December 2013 and effectively laid the groundwork for augmented reality gaming, has already seen users form their own groups and travel to social events ranging from casual meet-ups to full-scale conferences.
There are massive meet-ups called “anomalies” occurring across the globe in which players of both competing teams—the “Enlightened" versus the "Resistance"—attempt various objectives on top of normal game play. These events garner massive crowds, with some coming from across the world to participate. At an anomaly being held in Tokyo this month, players could even rent a seat on an “Ingress Bus” for as much as 3,000 Yen to get to the event. The Santa Monica pier was the site for a massive Pokemon meet-up this week, and you can be sure that Pokemon-themed travel excursions aren't far behind.
2) Travel destinations are using the games to attract travelers.
Niantic has partnered with city marketing organizations to create "mission days" in their cities that draw Ingress players for a day of directed exploration and AR play. There's also a concept of Ingress "First Saturdays" that are held in towns for players to "level up." Even travel destinations like Heide Park Resort in Germany have marketed Pokestops in their locations to attract visitors enamored with Pokemon Go.
3) It's driving people to explore landmarks and off-the-beaten path destinations.
In addition to the meet-up events, both games actually leverage historic sites, landmarks, public parks and interesting public spaces. While some of the most notable portals in Ingress (called Pokestops in Pokemon Go) are not surprising—the Eiffel Tower, Central Park—other, more out-of-the-way locations are also featured in the game, and many players of both games have said that their quest for new Pokestops and Ingress portals has led them to explore new destinations as well as corners of their own city they'd never paid notice. Even Forbes has admitted the quest to collect Pokemon can actually be educational.
4) It's encouraging more walking.
As a geo-location game, both Ingress and Pokemon Go aim to get people out the door and into their surroundings. Built into the Pokemon Go app is the act of "hatching" new Pokemon; it's accomplished by walking around no less than two kilometers. In fact, there's so much walking involved in the game that animal shelters have even been asking Pokemon Go players to kindly walk their shelter dogs while playing the game. And walking, we think, is key to exploring our great big world, even if some of the time you're staring down at the app.