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Tiny digital Pokémon characters are hiding out in the physical world, enticing people to get off the couch and explore cities through the lens of a smartphone. The millions who have downloaded Pokémon Go are doing far more than chasing digital Pikachus, however: They could be ushering in a new era of computing.Augmented reality—the use of technology to superimpose digital creations onto one's physical world—has already found a place in the business world. In the workplace, for example, a worker wearing an augmented-reality headset might see specific instructions on how to complete a technical task, while emergency responders could use a digital map to find survivors in the rubble after a disaster.There have been questions about whether this type of technology would find acceptance with consumers, however. Most people shy away from the idea of wearing a headset at all times as they go about their daily business, as the cold response to Alphabet Inc.'s Google Glass suggested. Pokémon Go provides a needed example of how the digital and physical worlds might be able to coexist through mobile devices, though. While virtual reality requires a complete retreat from the surrounding physical world, augmented reality lives within it, potentially making it more attractive to a mainstream audience."Augmented reality is the bigger play because humans still get to touch, and still have a better connection with, their immediate real-time physical world," said Todd Richmond, director of advanced prototype development at University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies. "It is an easier transaction to process."Virtual reality remains ahead of augmented reality in overall development, with first-generation headsets like Facebook's Oculus Rift and HTC's Vive released earlier this year. Sony Corp.'s PlayStation VR is expected to hit the market in the second half of 2016.But virtual reality sales haven't taken off in the way some might have expected, as no game or app has broken through to the mainstream and made the expensive devices a must-have item. That leaves room for augmented reality offerings like Pokémon Go to leapfrog their more immersive brethren, and potentially prove that the more attractive option of the two."We're in a period of novelty sells right now," said Richmond. "Augmented reality will impact all verticals in all aspects of life—but right now virtual reality is the shiny object." The technology powering Niantic Labs' Pokémon Go is not much different than the technology that powered the Google spinoff's augmented-reality game Ingress, released two years ago. The household brand name of Nintendo's Pokémon, and the fact that the public is more acquainted with augmented reality now than it was in 2014, has created a "perfect storm" for adoption, Richmond said. In a sense, the popularity of the game serves as a lead-in to what augmented-reality developers believe will be a much more interactive experience in a few years' time, as applications improve in such a way that they are integrated seamlessly into, and enhance, a user's real world. More advanced headsets from the likes of startup Magic Leap, which is backed by Alphabet and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. , and Microsoft Corp. , which released HoloLens to developers earlier this year, may help tilt the needle in favor of augmented reality. Also, Google and Lenovo Group Ltd. are launching smartphone-based technology called Tango this year that could improve the type of experience Pokémon Go offers on mobile devices.In the future, when using devices such as these, Pokémon won't just appear idly in a user's real world through their iPhone camera lens, but interact with a user. While donning a pair of HoloLens, one could imagine a future in which they'd be able to turn their entire backyard into a Pokémon battle arena. With Tango, the creatures could perhaps even use real-world objects in ap person's home, such as a table, to shield against attacks."People play this and think ‘Wow, it would be even better if it was on HoloLens,' if the stuff really looked like it was integrated in our physical world," said Blair MacIntyre, a professor in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech. "People see those videos and think, ‘Oh, that's what AR could be.'"If consumers become comfortable with augmented reality, they might one day even accept it as the next big communications medium, the way early cellphone naysayers eventually took to the smartphone, or the way mobile overtook the web, said Mark Skwarek, an artist and lecturer of integrated digital media at New York University's Tandon School of Engineering. In that case, augmented reality "would leapfrog" virtual reality, he said."It'll be something you have with you all the time, there will be mass penetration across the general public," Skwarek said. "It will be seamless; it'll be all around you."
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