From the 1950s well into the 1980s, the slogan for Trix breakfast cereal was “Trix are for kids.” Ads showed a silly rabbit going through all sorts of machinations to get his hands on the colorful cereal.
That, in a nutshell, is the story of Pokémon Plus, the Pokémon Go accessory released today. It was supposed to be for kids, Niantic founder and chief technology officer Phil Keslin told me this week.
He says Nintendo pitched it as a low-cost, low-entry augmented reality device for children. Says Keslin:
The original idea was that this device could be given to a child who didn’t have a phone, who is running around with his parents nearby. The device would vibrate and light up and the children could take action and get Pokémon without needing a phone; [they could] later go to the parents to review what they caught. It was a way for children to be able play without a cell phone.
But instead, adults are scooping up the available supply, eager to take advantage of Pokémon Go’s Plus ability to keep the game running when the phone screen is off—a big power savings. They have been lining up this morning in front of Nintendo’s New York store and at Gamestop locations. Online ordering has already been turned off.
Pokémon Go Plus is a watch-size wearable with a center button. It communicates with smartphones via Bluetooth LE, and uses an LED and vibration motor to provide notifications. It flashes and vibrates when the user is near a Pokéstop or a Pokémon—with slightly different patterns.
(You can find a more complete explanation of the game here. But basically, the point is to catch Pokémon, which are virtual critters tied to real-world locations. You gather the tools needed to catch them at Pokéstops. Eventually, you can join a team, then bring your Pokémon to “gyms” to pit them against the Pokémon fielded by other teams.)
Pokémon Go Plus allows users to catch Pokémon and collect items from Pokéstops by pushing the button—and to hatch eggs by walking specific distances—all while the user’s phone is locked and the app is running in background. Previously, keeping the app running while locking the phone wasn’t possible. And without a screen to use for selecting and aiming a ball, players’ success rate in catching higher-powered Pokémon is low, though it’s reasonable for basic Pokémon.
What’s next for Pokémon Go? Keslin, no surprise, wouldn’t give specifics. But he did point out that augmented reality is not necessarily limited to being a visual technology. Says Keslin: “We haven’t yet explored the audio augmented experience as much as we could.”
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.