Before long, packs of Pokémon hunters were roaming New York, London, Paris and other locations around the world, searching for new monsters and using an AR system to help catch them. Unlike Niantic's last game, Ingress, this wasn't just geeks and gamers. I can count on one hand the number of Ingress players I know. With Pokémon Go, I can count on one hand the people I know who didn't play it. My 64-year-old mom played. My 10-year-old son played. It felt like, at one point, almost everyone gave it a shot. By the time Niantic announced an Apple Watch app for Pokémon Go, the game had already been downloaded 500 million times. That's a ridiculous number.
Of course, crazes rise and fall, and it's safe to say that Pokémon Go is, if not gone, seemingly on its way out of the public's imagination. But its impact remains. My colleague Kris Naudus referred to Pokémon Go as AR's aha moment, and I agree. For a fleeting minute, the game brought a little Pokémon magic into our world. It's one of the most basic implementations of AR around, but we found it compelling. That should be encouraging for Microsoft, Magic Leap and any other company that's planning a mixed or augmented reality product.
So where does that leave virtual reality? Well, there are still plenty of headsets out there, and VR is not going away anytime soon. Sony launched the PlayStation VR just a month ago, and it's expected to equal Vive and Rift sales combined by the year's end. It's not that PSVR offers a better experience than its PC-based cousins. It's just a lot cheaper -- $399 to $499, depending on your needs -- and has a way bigger reach. Steam stats suggest little over 10 percent of PC gamers have a VR-ready computer. Every PlayStation 4 owner can plug in a PSVR and get started. That gives Sony somewhere between two and four times the potential audience.
And even PSVR's prospective audience is dwarfed by the potential market for smartphone VR. Google has sold cheap Cardboard viewers for a couple of years, but this year the company announced Daydream, a new initiative to bring a more premium VR experience to mobile users. Daydream View is a $79, comfortable headset sold with a bundled motion controller. At present, only Google's Pixel and the updated Moto Z are Daydream-certified -- a side effect of the high standard of experience that Google is hoping to maintain -- but you can bet that many Android phones will support the standard in 2017.
VR, AR, MR and every other "R" need to coexist for a while. For now virtual reality is the easiest to pull off -- software and hardware makers have the fewest things to keep track of and complete control of the virtual environment -- and also the most developed. It's fairly easy for a developer to build a VR app or for a manufacturer to make a VR-ready phone. Mixed reality is clearly harder.
Microsoft's HoloLens is effectively a wearable computer, making thousands of calculations every second just to understand its environment. And its limitations, such as field of view, are way more apparent than those of a VR headset. The virtual objects of HoloLens have to be small enough -- or faraway enough -- to fit into a small square in the middle of the headset. You simply can't see the whole illusion. Perhaps Magic Leap already has the answer to that problem, but given how many years it's been in development -- and how little it's shown so far -- it's likely not a simple thing to figure out.
In 2017, Microsoft's partners will release a handful of $300 VR headsets for Windows. Rather than competing with existing VR products, these headsets are more like a diet HoloLens. You'll get the same experience, interface and apps as HoloLens, but your entire environment will be virtual. Think of it like a gateway drug for mixed reality. In one swoop, it's getting both developers and users ready for MR, without the tribulations of dealing with first-generation, hyper-expensive headsets.
At the same time, Google is currently working on a device that uses cameras and algorithms to display mixed reality inside a virtual reality headset. It's essentially going to be a combination of VR and Google's Tango computer vision efforts, with a lot of extra smarts added on top. Again, the project seems almost like a stepping-stone toward a more complete mixed reality experience. The device has yet to be announced, but sources familiar with the matter say it's of great importance to the company.
The dark horse in all of this is Apple. As is tradition, there's been a lot of speculation and questions asked about the company's plans for virtual, augmented and mixed reality. CEO Tim Cook has said that AR is more interesting than VR, as it's less closed off and more social. The company has already acquired an AR company, and it has experts in the field within its ranks. Its iPhones clearly have the power and sensors to pull off a Daydream-like VR experience immediately, but it's obviously waiting to offer something more compelling to its users.