Virtual reality is often lauded as the future of gaming. With its high-tech headsets, it can transport gamers to fantastic virtual environments, completely separate from the real world.
But the recent runaway success of a mobile Pokémon app suggests great promise for augmented reality – virtual reality's less glamorous, less isolating cousin.
Less than a week after its U.S. launch, players on average are spending more time in "Pokémon Go" -- which uses gamers' real-world locations to make cartoonish creatures appear on their phone screens -- than Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook Messenger, according to Internet analytics company SimilarWeb. The app has fueled a nearly 25% jump in Nintendo's stock, adding some $7.5 billion to the market cap of a game-maker that had previously lagged in mobile gaming.
Across the world, shops, parks and other public spaces have recorded a surge in foot traffic as gamers venture outside, smartphones in hand, in search for Pokémon to catch.
For some analysts, "Pokémon Go" is validation of what they've been saying all along: That despite the hype surrounding virtual reality and its buzzed-about gadgets such as Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR, augmented reality, or AR, will play a much bigger role in our lives.
"Virtual reality is a fun, vibrant niche that will never be mainstream, whereas augmented reality will absolutely be mainstream," said Dmitri Williams, president of Ninja Metrics, an advanced data science company that works in gaming and retail. "The reason is VR separates you from people, while AR augments your interactions with people."
Where virtual reality currently requires the aid of a headset that obscures a person's face, augmented reality is less imposing and can be done on a smartphone, blending the real and virtual on a screen.
Some of the most popular games succeed, Williams said, because of they way they encourage gamers to foster relationships with one another. "Pokémon Go" achieves that by allowing players to compete against one another – but it goes a step further by encouraging them to step outside and interact in-person.
That's only possible because the game takes place on a smartphone – a device more than two-thirds of American adults walk around with in their pocket.
"It taps into the fact that we have our mobile devices on us 24/7, we're checking them dozens of times a day, and it allows us to use them in new and novel ways," said Scott Steinberg, trends expert and futurist for TechSavvy.
Unlike conventional computer and console games that demand a player's full attention, "Pokémon Go" can be consumed in bite-size increments throughout the day – a pattern that already matches most people's phone usage habits.
"It's a perfect storm of nostalgia [for Pokémon], AR features and a consumer base that's socialized to do it."
Thanks in part to the enormous popularity of the Pokémon franchise – a Japanese entertainment brand that became a household name in the '90s – analysts say "Pokémon Go" may push augmented reality out of virtual reality's shadow.
Game developers have been playing with the concept of augmented for two decades, but without a commercial breakthrough. In 2013, Niantic Labs – the San Francisco company that developed "Pokémon Go" – released the augmented game "Ingress" to limited mainstream success.
"Augmented reality is one of those things that got pushed off to the side because no one had seen a proof of concept of a successful or compelling AR game," said Matthew Diener, a senior analyst at research firm EEDAR.
The gaming industry itself has largely overlooked augmented reality because, until now, it hasn't had the wow factor of virtual reality, Diener said. There was also a sense that too few people understood the technology.
But now that "Pokémon Go" has taken off, there's little doubt that gamers understand – and adore – augmented features that let them interact with the real world.
Gamers such as Anthony Moreno, 17, of Compton, have trekked across the Southland trying to catch Pokémon. "We went to the San Pedro pier, Redondo pier, and now we're going to the park over here," he said outside Los Angeles City Hall. "We haven't been here, so it's gonna be a new experience for us."
Experiences like his suggest "Pokémon Go" could be the "Angry Birds" of augmented gaming. Just like how "Angry Birds" taught a generation of smartphone users how to swipe on touch-based glass screens, "Pokémon Go" could help gamers understand this new medium, said SuperData Research Chief Executive Joost van Dreunen.
"People tend to lump AR and VR, and 'Pokémon Go' lets you separate the two," Van Dreunen said.
Virtual reality will be seen as the immersive, high-definition and insular "shiny ball with billions invested into it," said Peter Warman, chief executive of gaming research firm Newzoo. Augmented reality, on the other hand, will live on our phones, on our devices, in our pockets.
"AR is not as shiny," Warman said, "but [it's] a way bigger ball."
Alex Schiffer and Jessica Roy contributed to this report.