Pokémon GO quickly drains your phone battery, crashes with alarming frequency, has a dodgy UI and is lacking instructions.

But still, the app is incredibly popular, with TechCrunch estimating 7.5m downloads in the US and SimilarWeb reporting 60% of these downloaders as daily active users. Nintendo's value, unsurprisingly, has sky-rocketed.

So, with augmented reality (AR) a big part of the game (enabling you to see and catch Pokémon), is this a breakthrough moment for AR?

Familiarity with the tech can only help so much

There's no doubt that so many smartphone users augmenting their reality with Pokémon makes it easier for brands to follow on with AR campaigns.

AR is already becoming part of social media's visual vernacular and users are accustomed to pictures of reality that have been augmented (either with Pokémon or with Snapchat filters).

However, familiarity can just as easily breed contempt, as was the case with QR codes (except in China). Is it possible AR could fall into the same trap?

Well, it is beset by some of the same problems, namely the need to be integrated into an app, rather than bundled with an operating system.

For brands to succeed at scale, either an AR app such as Zappar or Blippar needs to gain popularity (Blippar has recently pivoted to visual search), a social app with a big user base needs to introduce the functionality, or new VR apps and devices need to become widespread enough to be the de facto home of AR.

Otherwise, and for the time being, brands have to roll AR functionality into their own brand apps, creating a big hurdle for consumers who are reluctant to download an app to engage with mediocre content and sloppy UX.

The quality of the creative is obviously vital

This is the most important point and one which the reader may rightly assume is a bloody obvious one.

The characters, the interactions, the storytelling, the competition - it all has to be compelling enough that users will engage despite the crappy UX.

As my colleague Bola points out, brands need to create enormously fun characters or stories or, perhaps more easily, use particularly compelling incentives (big, money-can't-buy prizes).

If brands think we want to download an app to scan uninspiring objects in order to download a snippet of a song, or see a hologram of a footballer, they are wrong.

Perhaps AR triggers are a red herring

It's the feeling of discovery that has made Pokémon GO so compelling. This is what great gaming is all about - adventure and mastery.

Pokémon GO has engendered this in the real world by making players walk around in order to incubate their eggs and explore their environment to find Pokémon.

Adding this GPS element is inspired, though the phrase 'augmented reality' has hinted at it all along.

Where brands may have concentrated on augmenting an out-of-home advert, a catalogue or an object, they now understand that nothing less than augmenting a neighbourhood will suffice.

We don't want to point, hover and wait. We want to explore and find something unique.

In fact, the very idea of a trigger (a token or an object, such as that used by Zappar) may well be a red herring.

Perhaps it interrupts the fantasy - only without triggers can there be a truly 'other' and limitless world of AR.

Truly gamified interaction doesn't come cheap

Even if GPS can be used intelligently in a branded AR campaign or competition, there are other elements of Pokémon GO that are obviously too difficult to replicate - it's a very sophisticated game for all its flaws.

It's simply too costly for a brand to do something on this scale. So, without this level of gamification, can an AR treasure hunt be as hugely successful?

Probably not, but hypothetically, for fans taking part in a brand competition, an AR hunt could no doubt be used to generate much chatter and engagement.

Rewards could be built in and activity measured, though it would be a costly and therefore risky undertaking.

Some brands have already attempted more limited versions of this - notably REI combined AR with 400 of its outdoor adverts in 2011, and some brands have worked with geocaching to gamify engagement.

Becks conducted the most high profile AR brand campaign to date, the Green Box Project, but this included triggers and was less about treasure hunting, more combining experiential with mobile.

Social media is still the priority

It's the social aspect of Pokémon GO that has captured the imagination of the press. People are out and about, meeting other players at landmarks and having real life conversations.

This is the take-home message for brands. How can they work this kind of social interaction into their campaigns, online and off?

Before social networks ramped up their ad solutions, brands tried to game social media and were often successful (e.g. IKEA).

Have brands become lazy, dependent on paid social to spread the word, rather than trying to engender genuine interaction? Looking at a lot of paid creative, I would argue yes.

Safety is not a minor concern 

Using the big wide world as a sandbox is tricky, as Pokémon GO has found out with players being lured by muggers or simply caught out late at night in a dodgy location.

Others have had to get used to streams of players visiting their street when a Pokémon Gym appears in the vicinity. 

If a brand was to kick off a broad AR campaign, it would have to be wary of how such treasure hunting could put the public in danger.

In conclusion...

AR has been used for some practical purposes (e.g. the Lowe's Holoroom for customising kitchens), for fun in-store games (e.g. ASDA), and in trigger-based brand campaigns (Zappar, Becks, REI).

Though brands such as Becks can be credited for trying AR campaigns on a larger scale, surely the stage is set for another brand to try a triggerless, AR hunt, more in the vein of Pokémon GO.

If a brand did this right, surely the engagement could be impressive.

Ben Davis

Published 13 July, 2016 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is Editor at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at ben.davis@econsultancy.com, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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