Pokemon Go has taken the world by storm, ushering in a new wave of gaming technology using Augmented Reality. It has defied the use of an Oculus Rift or Google Glass by tapping into something as simple as a mobile phone and GPS tracking. There have been controversies of national security and interesting snippets of individual players surrounding the Pokemon Go craze. Is this new wave set to revolutionize Virtual Reality and Gaming technologies? Is there a patent war waiting to follow? There are answers to these and much more in this two-part blog series on Pokemon Go.
This iRunway Research report analyzes the popularity in the application of Virtual Reality technology for gaming, identifies monetization strategies adopted by top assignees and much more. For insights, click here.
Pokémon GO has thrown the world into a virtual craze. Mobs of people are walking around with eyes glued to their phone screens, face reflecting determination. Easy as it may be to mistake them as adventurous tourists trying to follow a digital map in search of their destination, they are ardent players of Pokémon GO.
Since its first rollout on July 6th this year, this gaming app has taken the world by storm and has already crossed 75 million downloads across the world by end of July. It only took a little over two weeks for the game to surpass the 50 million downloads milestone. This pocket monster-catching simulator game by developer Niantic has left behind all competing, popular games and reached a class by itself, in terms of popularity and craze, creating a so-called global phenomenon. It has more Android installs than Tinder, and will soon have more daily mobile users than Twitter. It has already been declared the biggest mobile game in US history, beating other notables like Candy Crush Saga, Clash Royale and Draw Something, and is expected to outdo social networks like Tinder, Twitter, and even Facebook when it comes to daily active users. As a result, within two weeks, Nintendo (which partners with Niantic in the game’s publication) more than doubled its share price, adding 15 billion USD to their market cap, turning around its struggling business. Such is the craze of this game that it has not only led to accidents on roads, skateboard spills, suspected robbers being lured in victims with a chance of catching Pokémon, a man quitting his job to hunt exclusively for Pokémons, but also led a teenage girl finding a dead body!
The technology behind the craze
Pokémon GO, built on the backbone of Google technology, is a location-based, augmented reality, a multiplayer online mobile game developed by Niantic Labs in collaboration with Nintendo for Android and iOS devices. What makes it different from other virtual games or the predecessor Pokémon games is that it uses the real world to simulate the gaming experience. The game uses GPS sensors of a smartphone to track a player’s location and find new Pokémons, and then uses the phone’s camera to virtually superimpose them over the surroundings using AR technology to bring these creatures to life. In AR, information, including images, generated from a computer is projected on to real-life objects or surroundings, thereby allowing users to read data and/or interact with them. Your character in this game moves in the game as you walk around in real life, and events and objects, known as PokéStops, are associated with specific locations in the physical world. The phone’s display serves as a viewfinder that mixes reality with game objects, giving the player a flavor of augmented reality. It also supports its own custom Pokémon Go Plus wrist device that pairs with the phone via Bluetooth, buzz when one is near a Pokémon and lets the player catch them with the push of a button. The game makes money through in-app purchases and in-game currency.
Augmented Reality Before Pokémon GO
AR-powered apps aren’t a new idea, however. Nokia’s Lumia smartphones had an AR-powered app called City Lens in 2012, where a user could point the camera at, say, a marketplace, and the app would reflect information about it. The Google Goggles app offers something similar and was being tested for the Google Glass project.
Microsoft’s HoloLens is another classy AR example. There are similar concepts in the Head-up-display of fighter aircraft and cars. Pokémon GO wasn’t the first and won’t be the last AR game. This is a concept that game developers are looking to tap into, as they build on the concept established in existing games like Ingress, Life Is Crime, etc. Pokémon GO builds on the platform that Ingress uses but is, without doubt, the first time AR has had such mass appeal especially since it negates the use of powerful headsets like Oculus or HTC Vive.
Augmented Reality and Patent Landscape Surrounding Pokémon GO
The tremendous success of Pokémon GO has suddenly made the AR market very interesting and lucrative for a number of players. AR-based applications rely on a large number of underlying technologies. The adjacent figure shows a break up of currently active AR patents by technologies. The two biggest parts, making up more than half of the assets, are related to “Head-mounted AR display” and “Image processing”. This also signifies that Pokémon Go is not the first attempt at AR.
In 2013 and 2014, Google had its own round of craze with the hyped Google Glass. Back in 2011, Qualcomm showcased AR applications similar to Pokémon Go. A number of related patent-intensive technology areas include mobile devices, GPS/locations, and AR gaming, however, the span of the possibilities of AR is shown by smaller clusters within robot control and medical applications.
The below graph shows the distribution of granted patents and patent applications among the biggest innovators in the AR space. Microsoft, which is expected to release “HoloLens” soon, has the largest amount of granted as well as total patent families. Pantech, Siemens, and Amazon have mainly granted patent portfolios. Magic Leap, a US-based startup working on head-mounted virtual display which superimposes 3D computer-generated imagery over real-world objects, has the largest fraction of pending patents among the big players.
From the following graph on the timeline of AR patent filing, it is evident that Siemens was a pioneer in the field with dozens of patents from 1999 to 2003. Its patents were primarily related to medical and industrial applications. There were only a few other AR patents in that period. Notably, the overall filing activity took off in 2010. Pantech stands out with a single peak in 2010 and seems to have subsided the pursuit of more patents in the area thereafter. Microsoft was most active from 2011 to 2013 until Magic Leap, with a strong increase in the filing, surpassed in 2014. Both Microsoft and Magic Leap focus mainly on technologies related to head-mounted AR devices. Other major players dominating the field include Samsung, Sony, and Qualcomm. Qualcomm and Microsoft are gaining market share, whereas incumbents Siemens and Pantech have lost most patents market share in the last few years.
Recent studies also show that companies of the like, Nike and Apple are also knee-deep in AR development. For instance, Apple recently published a patent application titled “synchronized, interactive augmented reality displays for multifunction devices.”, which discloses a technology like “Pokémon Go” that could be used to create a 3D map of an area, overlaid with information. But Apple has several real-world applications in mind that go beyond games or entertainment.
Although AR patenting has seen enormous activity and growth in filing since 2010 the elephant in the room is probably the fact that Nintendo is not a strong player in this space. Companies such as Siemens, Microsoft, Sony, Pantec, and Amazon have the opportunity to emerge as big winners in AR scape. And if Pokémon Go is a sign of things to evolve, there is no doubt that the AR industry would be another big IP battlefield. But will the Alice verdict come into the picture again? I’ll discuss that and more in my next blog.
(Featured image source: https://pxhere.com/en/photo/556168)