More Than a Pet Rock

Amidst terror and tragedy the past two weeks, something fun and amazing happened. The world discovered Pokemon Go – a new augmented reality app that allows users to find and capture virtual Pokemon characters in real world locations using their smartphone cameras. In Internet terminology, this app has gone viral, taking off faster than anything we’ve seen in a great while. How does this happen and what does it teach us about the future of video?

Two things.

1. Fads Are Critical to Technology Diffusion
Technology and financial analysts love to draw lines. We study the numbers and develop forecasts showing how adoption of a new technology goes from Point A to Point B, the result being a line representing growth. For entrepreneurs, this line has become a cliché – the proverbial ‘hockey stick’ growth chart going up as one moves from left to right across time.

Behind these neat projections, however, lies the much messier reality of how actual people engage with products and services in the context of their lives. In this (very real) world, success and failure are two sides of the same coin, randomly distributed by timing, rationality, emotion, and pure chance. John Maynard Keynes used the term ‘animal spirits’ to describe the intangible forces that drive boom-and-bust cycles in the economy and financial markets. In pop culture, we call these ‘fads.’ Google dictionary defines a ‘fad’ as follows:

An intense and widely shared enthusiasm for something, especially one that is short-lived and without basis in the object’s qualities; a craze.

I love that last part – ‘a craze’ – because fads can seem just plain crazy while they are happening. Flagpole sitting was a thing in the 1920s (Google it), while 1975 gave us the unforgettable pet rock. Obviously, all fads are not created equal, and some disappear without leaving much of a trace.

Technology-related fads, by contrast, can leave a more lasting imprint. In the past few months, we’ve seen how (1) the Google Cardboard fad parallels the early home videogame craze around Atari Pong; and (2) Chewbacca Mom’s hilarious video introduced Facebook Live to a mass audience.

And this is where Pokemon Go comes in. First, this definitely qualifies as a global fad. The app launched on July 6 in the US and is already more heavily used (in terms of daily active users) than both Snapchat and Tinder. Some reports put mobile phone usage (after just 10 days!) on a par with Twitter. Both Transport for London and the New York Subway have issued warnings about trying to pick up virtual characters on the train tracks. We’ve seen pleas from the Holocaust Museum, the 9/11 Memorial, and even Auschwitz (!) for people to stop playing Pokemon Go at these solemn locations.

Second, like Pong before it, Pokemon Go is popularizing a technology (in this case augmented reality or AR) for the masses. Augmented reality (i.e., the ability to superimpose digital objects onto a real world background) has been kicking around for years in research labs. Niche applications exist for everything from medicine to the military (the heads-up displays in fighter jets are a form of augmented reality), but have not made much of an impression on the consumer.

Pokemon Go has changed all of that, literally overnight. The past 10 years of progress in consumer AR applications pales in comparison with what Pokemon Go has accomplished in a little over a week. Tens of millions of people (including young, urban, tech-savvy influencers around the world) are being trained to see every day urban reality with new (augmented) eyes. People are learning new skills and adopting entirely novel behaviors, and they seem to be enjoying themselves immensely in the process.
There is (truly) nothing comparable with pop culture fads in terms of the scope and speed of behavior change that they enable. This new-found knowledge is not going to just disappear when the Pokemon Go Craze runs its course – other augmented reality apps and services can and will build on this foundation of consumer knowledge and experience.

2. Video Has Jumped the Fence and Escaped into the Wild
Media companies have adapted amazingly well to the expanding array of screens used for video viewing. Kids watch TV-as-an-app on their smartphones and people take their tablets to bed, but the video in many cases has largely remained the same. A show is a show, and a movie is a movie, right? Not necessarily.

The cool thing to recognize about Pokemon Go is that the augmented reality experience is not static. The characters you discover in the real world are animated, and your actions to catch them result in an interactive phenomenon (what TDG calls a ‘quantum media’ experience). Each interaction is a little animated movie playing out against a real-world backdrop. In short, augmented reality apps are bringing the live-action-plus-animation world of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? to life. Pokemon deserves huge credit for trailblazing this new frontier, but imagine what Disney (and Pixar) are going to be able to do with this. In short, cloud-based augmented reality videos can (and will) be everywhere that our connected devices go. A whole new medium is going to develop. Is your video company ready?

Technology diffusion is like bankruptcy – it happens two ways: gradually, then suddenly. Fads like Pokemon Go can popularize new technologies at speeds never before seen in human history. As a result, augmented reality video has arrived well ahead of schedule and is now here to stay.

Stick with TDG and stay ahead of the curve.

Joel Espelien is a Senior Advisor for TDG and serves as an advisor and Board Member to the video ecosystem and technology companies. He lives near Seattle, WA.