In the summer of 2016, a fever broke out that affected millions of people. A videogame prompted young Iranians to challenge the bans of their government, dozens of people in New York to abandon their cars on the highway, and the French army to allocate resources to map the location of virtual creatures. The culprit of this epidemic was Pokémon Go, a mobile phone application that was installed by more than 100 million users worldwide in the first month alone.
The purpose of the game was to collect the 151 pokémon hiding in the streets, squares and parks. They could be captured even in the Pentagon and the White House. Players had to travel around their cities to find the virtual creatures, converting the real world into the playing field. Augmented reality was responsible for successfully merging these two universes. This technology and its complementary one, virtual reality, have not been limited just to Pokémon Go and they have completely revolutionized the way of playing videogames.
Niantic, the company that developed the videogame, and Nintendo, which owns part of the rights of Pokémon, saw their share prices shoot up 76% in the first days of the launch of the game and they earned 200 million dollars in the first month alone. The success of the game showed the interest of users in playing in other realities. “Phenomena like Pokémon Go are what are known as killer apps, applications that get extended beyond a few users to be something massive. These types of applications are fundamental to bringing new technologies to the public,” explains Fernando Gómez, professor of virtual reality and augmented reality at IED Madrid.
Immersion in another reality
But this phenomenon goes beyond the bubble of Pokémon Go, which deflated within a few months. It would be like trying to measure an iceberg only by its visible part. “Virtual and augmented reality have changed the paradigm of gaming. The game experience now involves the use of the body, interaction, entry into a virtual world, and immersion in another reality,” explains Juan Manuel Martín Castillo, marketing director of NVIDIA Iberia, a multinational graphics card and processing company, to OpenMind.
Experts recognize that it is too early to know the true effect of these technologies, but they admit that the impact has already been “undeniable.” The big technology companies have been betting on virtual and augmented reality since 2015, which gives another clue about the relevance that these trends are acquiring. Google has created its virtual reality platform (Daydream) and Samsung and Amazon have developed their own glasses (Gear VR and Oculus, respectively). Facebook, at its developer conference in 2017, consolidated its commitment to augmented reality. Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of the social network, has confirmed the goal of the company: that the real world is based on what is seen through the mobile phone.
Infinite playing possibilities
“How many of us could go to climb Everest? Surely none of us. Now, we can all do it from the living room of our home, thanks to virtual reality,” said Brian Krzanich, CEO of Intel, at his conference at CES 2017 in Las Vegas. The possibilities of gaming seem endless. You can be paragliding in the Grand Canyon of Colorado and the next minute balancing, one foot after another, among the skyscrapers of New York. And then, suddenly, you are surrounded by bloody zombies that are slowly approaching you.
“It’s possible to fulfill all the gamer fantasies: travelling to fantastic worlds, role-playing games or getting superpowers,” says Gomez, who is also technology director for the virtual reality studio Isostopy. “In addition, it is played in a much more intense way, without the protection that being behind a monitor provides. Now, the user must only use not only a mouse and a keyboard, but his whole body.”
But the future is not going to stay there. Big technology firms like Intel, formerly specialized in processors, have already caught the next big wave: merged reality, a mix between augmented and virtual. With this new technology, the elements of reality cannot be distinguished from digital ones. The furniture of the room in which the player is located is integrated into the videogame. Thus, if it deals with spaceships —like the one developed by Intel— these elements are mimicked with the environment and may look like gates or control panels. You must avoid them or use them, but your house is already part of a distant galaxy.
These technologies, especially virtual reality, were developed directly with the world of videogames in mind —as Gómez explains— but their applications have surpassed the boundaries of gaming. “There are emerging virtual experiences focused on learning, treating phobias and trauma, or meditation,” he describes. Entertainment in another reality can also become a therapy for the user.
Beatriz Guillén for Ventana al Conocimiento