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Pokemon Go shows promise of augmented reality

Like millions of people around the globe, I’m excited about Pokémon Go — the app that has people walking around cities, parks and other venues in search of Squirtle and other characters to capture. It’s not the game that excites me, but the fact that Pokémon Go is the first wildly popular augmented reality application.

If you’ve observed players first hand, you may have noticed them walking around staring at their smartphone screens but if you look carefully, you might see those Pokémon characters superimposed against the backdrop of the real world around them. If you’ve played the game, you have been warned at the startup screen to “stay aware of your surroundings.” I had to be careful not to fall into pond in pursuit of a nearby monster.

Hal Schoolcraft, 64, left, plays Pokemon Go during his lunch break alongside a group of younger players in Plaza de Cesar Chavez in San Jose, Calif.,
Hal Schoolcraft, 64, left, plays Pokemon Go during his lunch break alongside a group of younger players in Plaza de Cesar Chavez in San Jose, Calif., Monday, July 11, 2016. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) ( Karl Mondon )
Truth be told, I have enough distractions in my life so I won’t allow myself to get addicted to this time killing — though admittedly fun — game. But what I love about it is that’s teaching the world about augmented reality, a technology that I think has a lot more potential than its better known cousin, virtual reality.

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are similar but different in an important way. Virtual reality completely immerses you while augmented reality — as the name implies — augments your real world.

If you don a VR headset like the Oculus Rift, the Samsung Gear VR or the HTC Vive, you are fully transported into whatever world is projected on your headset and you can’t see the actual world around you. It gives the application developer the ability to transport you anywhere. You can be under the sea, in outer space or flying over Paris as I experienced using the Eagle Flight app on Oculus Rift. With VR you only see what the software displays on your device. You are blind to the real world, especially if you’re wearing a VR headset.

While VR headsets are opaque, AR is transparent — or at least translucent. What you see on the screen — be it a mobile device or a headset — are images that are superimposed over the real world.

I first experienced AR back in 2011 when the CEO of Autonomy (now part of Hewlett-Packard) showed me Aurasma, which enables you to explore the world through a smartphone or tablet. One early application I saw showed how you could aim the device at a building and have the software recognize the building and peer through the walls so you can see what it looks like on the inside. Best Western has an Aurasma app that lets you point your camera in their hotel lobbies and have the Disney Channel actress Zendaya appear as if she was in the room with you.

There are serious applications as well. I spent some time at the Redwood City offices of Meta where I viewed all sorts of industrial and medical applications such as SimX medical training that lets doctors, medical students and others practice on virtual patients instead of mannequins or real people. The software can manifest characteristics — such as young, old or obese and symptoms, such as bleeding, to prepare medical personnel for far more scenarios than would be possible with real people or mannequins.

Unlike Pokémon Go and Aurasma, Meta’s solution requires a headset (which you can pre-order for $949) that looks more like protective goggles than a virtual reality headset. The whole idea is to see what’s around you along with whatever is projected on the clear screen in front of your eyes.

Microsoft is making a big bet on augmented reality, which it calls “mixed reality,” with its HoloLens that it describes as “the first fully self-contained, holographic computer, enabling you to interact with high definition holograms in your world.” I’ve seen a number of impressive demonstrations including putting a virtual human body into the room you’re in and giving you the ability to move it around or look at any of its organs.

When Microsoft first announced HoloLens, it showed a team of people designing a motorcycle fuel tank by superimposing various iterations of the virtual tank on a real motorcycle. Another demonstration shows how furniture might look in a real room, but there are lots of other possibilities including — as with other augmented reality products — helping a mechanic fix a car by showing exactly where the part would go along with instructions on how to install or repair it. Japan Airlines will be using HoloLens to teach crews to repair airplanes with the ability to resize parts, move them around and see them from all angles.

It’s not yet available for consumers but application developers can purchase the HoloLens development edition for $3,000. Consumer pricing hasn’t been announced When it comes to gaming, AR will, literally, be a game changer. We’re already seeing that with Pokémon Go, but expect an entire hardware and software industry to emerge to allow gamers to combine real and imaginary environments using not only smart phones but dedicated goggles as well.

It may also spawn a new subspecialty of emergency medicine unless the industry figures out ways to effectively warn people before they bump into things or fall off cliffs.