Pokémon Go iOS update will deliver more advanced augmented reality thanks to ARKit

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Niantic Labs, the developer of mobile augment reality hit Pokémon Go, today announced that an update of its iOS version out later this week will optimize the game with Apple’s ARKit framework. The framework, part of iOS 11, will allow the developer to add an all-new AR+ mode with far more advanced augmented reality features.

ARKit lets iOS developers take unique advantage of iPhone and iPad hardware and software advancements to intelligently place virtual objects in the real world. Niantic is using it to now fix pokémon in the camera viewfinder with higher accuracy and true-to-life size ratios, based on data about the creatures culled from the game series’ database. Prior to AR+, Pokémon Go would use rough approximations of where objects were to try and place the pokémon in your environment, but it was mostly a clunky workaround that functioned mostly as a novelty feature.

The new AR+ mode also lets iOS users take advantage of a new capture bonus, called “expert handler,” that involves sneaking up close to a pokémon, so as not to scare it away, in order to more easily capture it. The expert handler bonus will grant players more XP and extra stardust, which is an in-game currency for upgrading pokémon.

The experience, demoed by Niantic employees in a grassy park near its sleek new office at the Ferry Building in downtown San Francisco, made a strong case for iPhone owners to keep the game’s AR mode all the time, and perhaps even for lapsed players to give the game a shot again. Many current players, those who are diehard fans of the game, tend to keep AR mode turned off. That’s both because it makes capturing pokémon slightly more difficult and because it has proved a drain on battery.

Niantic wanted the AR+ mode to both incentivize players to keep AR mode on while at the same time showing off the advancements granted by ARKit. “In terms of AR, we launched with a pre-ARKit version of AR that was interesting and fun and created a lot of social media sharable moments for people,” said Niantic CEO John Hanke in a roundtable interview with reporters earlier this week. “But a lot of people did turn it off, in part because it was so limited.” He added that the primary focus of the new mode is to make AR “part of the gameplay in a way that is unique and fun.”

Even from my brief time with the new AR+ mode, it’s clear the ARKit benefits make Pokémon Go a more interactive and enjoyable experience. Once you tap a pokémon from the world map screen on the app, the camera opens up and animated shrubbery populates the ground. It’s a nod to the “tall grass” environments of the handheld game series in which many pokémon are found and captured.

Tapping a grass icon will force the pokémon out of hiding, where it now stands a certain distance away from the player in a fixed location. You can move the camera around, inch closer, or even turn away the viewfinder, and the pokémon will stay fixed in place. Getting the expert handler bonus involves sneaking up to the creature slowly and carefully. If you move too fast, a detection meter will fill up and start flashing red.

The capture phase of the game is also new and improved, with pokémon moving around the environment in AR+ mode in more realistic fashion. That means flying pokémon will hover above the ground, while grounded monsters will interact with their surroundings by jumping up and down or moving from one side of the frame to another.

With regards to battery life, Niantic says the new AR mode, because its relying on ARKit, is actually less taxing than the game’s original version of the tech. “For the original AR mode, we were using the game engine in the way it was not really designed to be used, doing something not super efficient,” explained Tatsuo Nomura, the product manager for Pokémon Go. “With ARKit, since it’s designed to use the camera with the gyroscope and all the sensors, it actually feeds in 60 frames per second with full resolution. It’s a lot more performant and it actually uses less battery than the original AR mode.”

Niantic’s ARKit implementation here is part of a partnership with Apple, which gifted the company a handful of iPhone X units to develop and test the new features on. Hanke, who originally founded Niantic as a division within Google dedicated to location-based Android games, recognizes that AR+ will inevitably divide the Pokémon Go user base. “We take advantage of the technology that is out there and Apple brought this technology to market,” he said. When asked about supporting ARCore, Google’s compete AR developer platform, Hanke added, “I’ll leave that for speculation at a future date.” ARCore remains in developer preview as of this week.

But it’s likely the vast majority of smartphones will be able to take advantage of AR+ for Pokémon Go in the coming months, when iOS and Android both have robust developer tools for making more sophisticated AR apps. Hanke said the goal is not to use AR as a gimmick, but to make sure it complements the greater purpose of a piece of software. “I think the best AR applications are going to be the one’s that have a reason for existing beyond the AR feature,” he said. “We’re not trying to create the entirety of the value from just that [AR]. It has more an impact because it’s part of this very large and popular game.”

Hanke said his company plans to continue pushing the envelope with regards to AR and what technology can do for games that utilize the real world in unique ways. “This is step one,” he said, explaining that AR will only continue to get more advanced. “Maybe some company will make some amazing AR glasses in the future,” Hanke added, alluding to Apple VP Greg Joswiak, who sat next to Hanke and spoke briefly during the roundtable interview. “Can’t imagine who that might be.”