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Why Pokémon Go’s John Hanke says augmented reality is better than virtual reality

AR, he says, is “far more interesting and promising — for technology and, really, for humanity.”

Ina Fried for Recode

This summer’s hit mobile game Pokémon Go, made by San Francisco-based Niantic, spurred renewed interest in augmented reality, the technology that lets virtual objects appear as though they’re in the real world.

On the latest episode of Recode Decode, Niantic CEO John Hanke said he sees augmented reality as an important complement to his company’s guiding philosophy, that games should happen off the couch and outside of the home. In the case of Pokémon Go, players have to travel — including to places they may never have visited before — to find and catch all the Pokémon in the world.

"From the very beginning, our games were about encouraging people to go outside and see interesting places," Hanke said. "So [I have] mixed feelings about people looking at their screen while we’re trying to lead them out into the park where they can see the statue and trees and nature."

"Maybe at some point in the future there will be augmented reality glasses which overlay Pokémon and other things seamlessly into our environment," he added. "But those don’t exist yet, so we’re looking for those interim steps."

One of those interim steps is Pokémon Go Plus, a wearable accessory that vibrates to alert players when they can take some action in the game. Another is Pokémon Go’s recently announced app for the Apple Watch, which will work similarly.

Much like Apple CEO Tim Cook, Hanke predicted that AR will reach greater heights than virtual reality, which employs headsets such as the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive to surround players in an all-virtual environment.

"It is the direction that I think is far more interesting and promising — for technology and, really, for humanity," Hanke said. "In a VR situation, you’re isolating yourself from everyone around you and entering this completely virtual space. AR is designed to add, enhance the things you do as a human being: Being outside, socializing with other people, shopping, playing, having fun. AR can make all those things better."

But, he acknowledged, convincing AR is "significantly more challenging" to create.

You can listen to Recode Decode in the audio player above, or subscribe on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher.

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