Catch some Pokemon and glimpse the future

One of the interesting debates over Pokemon Go, the addictive smartphone game that 9.5 million Americans play - and probably a lot more than that now - is whether it's truly augmented reality (AR), an up-and-coming companion technology to virtual reality (VR).

The question may seem largely philosophical, but the philosophy of how we use electronic devices is important: The post-smartphone era is just beginning.

Though many publications, both technical and general interest, have labeled Pokemon Go an AR game, it's probably incorrect in the strictly technical sense. A 1997 Massachusetts Institute of Technology review of AR (yes, it existed back then) described it as a technology "in which 3-D virtual objects are integrated into a 3-D real environment in real time." Here's an example from that 19-year-old paper - a real desk with a virtual lamp and two virtual chairs:

The Pokemon figures in the game, developed by a startup called Niantic, are not 3-D objects. When a player sees one on the map displayed on her computer screen, she can tap the image to turn on the phone's camera and behold a two-dimensional Pokemon superimposed over whatever the camera "sees." That makes for some funny screenshots (Lickitung in the middle of a baseball diamond; Rattata on top of a cat), but it's not true AR.

"If augmented reality was involved, inherent real time depth mapping and object recognition would prohibit you finding a giant Goldeen in the middle of a baseball field or a Rattata on top of your pet cat," argued Sunny Dhillon of Signia Venture Partners. AR, according to him, is what Microsoft is pursuing with its Hololens or Google is working on in its Tango project. Check out a demo of what Pokemon Go might look like on the Hololens; it's a whole different game.

To Dhillon, the 360-degree videos people watch on their smartphones with the help of crude Google Cardboard VR devices aren't true VR, either. Those who make them are, like Niantic, being impatient by presenting to the public technologies that are not quite ripe for commercialization or too expensive for most pocketbooks.

The haste is perfectly OK, though, if we adopt a different definition of augmented reality - say, one proposed by Oxford's Mark Graham and University of Kentucky's Matthew Zook and Andrew Boulton:

"Augmented reality is the material/virtual nexus mediated through technology, information, and code and enacted in specific and individualized space/time configurations."

Under this rather nebulous definition, Google Maps - which grew out of an earlier startup created by Niantic founder John Hanke - is an element of augmented reality. So are applications such as Yelp, which locates a restaurant and instantly supplies reviews, or Wikipedia, which we use to look up a name on an unfamiliar monument. Smartphones have already augmented our reality; while we carry them, we don't only exist in the world of physical objects, we carry a set of descriptions, opinions and bits of code attached or attachable to them.

That's the direction in which Google and its alumni, such as Hanke, are developing the smartphone. Google has already built VR capability into the next version of Android. Simultaneously, Lenovo, the Chinese electronics maker, has developed a phone incorporating Tango AR technology. When it hits the stores in the next month or two, it will allow the user, for example, to populate a real-life apartment with virtual new furniture to see if it fits, or to tour a museum and see the exhibits' stories on the smartphone screen. These are supposed to be true, three-dimensional AR experiences, based on real-time depth mapping.

The tantalizing glimpses of these possibilities that we are being shown now - the imperfect VR apps for Google Cardboard and Pokemon Go - are only meant to help us get used to the idea that the smartphone is about to turn into a very different, more capable gadget that will be reality-enhancing, reality-distorting and reality-escaping. Sure, AR and VR will be available in all their glory to people wearing cumbersome, expensive headsets. Many of us won't bother to buy those devices, though, because we'll have a slightly less impressive but infinitely more portable version with us at all times.

Deutsche Bank has calculated that the Pokemon Go-inspired rise in the market capitalization of Nintendo, part owner of the Pokemon characters, would only make sense if half the people alive today downloaded the app and five percent of players spent $100 on in-game purchases (not available on Pokemon Go at this point). That, however, is not how it works: Investors often react exuberantly to the next big thing, and Pokemon Go's incredible uptake shows that a lot of people actually want smartphones to go in the direction Google is pushing them - an important sign that Google Glass wasn't so far off the mark after all.

A new game is about to begin for device makers and developers alike. So catch some Pokemon, just to get in on the ground floor.

• Leonid Bershidsky, a Bloomberg View contributor, is a Berlin-based writer.

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