- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The augmented reality game app Pokemon Go has brought millions of players out of their homes and into the great outdoors in search of Squirtles, Charmanders and Bulbasaurs — and sometimes into the presence of savvy robbers, angry property owners and disgusted guardians of sacred places.

Despite some unwanted encounters, smartphone users of a certain age have flocked to Pokemon Go since it was released this month, doubling the stock prices of the game’s co-developer Nintendo and placing the game app in the No. 1 slot in 34 countries. It is to be launched Wednesday in Japan, the origin of the Pokemon phenomenon, according to the technology website TechCrunch.

The game app has proved so popular that Niantic, the game’s developer, had to delay its international release because flurries of activities by players crashed its computer servers several times. Concerns about the app accessing personal information have not dulled its popularity.

Tess Koman, associate editor of Cosmopolitan.com, wanted to see for herself what everyone has been talking about. She conducted an exercise experiment with Pokemon Go to see whether her fitness would improve. She played the game for a week and kept track of her fitness on the Up app.

“I wouldn’t call it an improvement, but it was definitely different and fun, said Ms. Koman, a New York City resident. “For me, it was nostalgic. In ‘98, I was so obsessed with the game, and so was everyone else. I haven’t seen a game quite like it.”

People who grew up watching and playing Pokemon can relive their childhoods on a smartphone app by capturing and battling Pokemon with augmented reality technology — a mix of the real world and virtual world.

Using a smartphone’s GPS, the game app creates a map of the player’s surroundings. It then taps into the phone’s camera to generate a virtual image of a Pokemon on the screen.

After customizing their avatars, players can see their avatars walk toward a Pokemon and catch it using a Pokeball that also is displayed via their cameras.

Pokemon tend to lurk near their habitats. Water types, such as Squirtles, are at beaches; grass types, like Bulbasaurs, live in arboretums and gardens; and fire types, including Charmanders, thrive at gas stations.

“[Augmented reality] shows the continuous integration of entertainment into our real lives,” said professor Benson Yeh, who teaches engineering at National Taiwan University. “It will not only change the way we play, but it will contribute to integrating gamification into our real lives in a way we have not seen before.”

The Pokemon franchise started in 1990, when programmer Satosho Tajiri merged his love of video games and collecting insects. The Japanese gaming sensation now has a mobile app, in addition to the television show, trading cards and video games.

The more Pokemon a player has, the more power and ability to move up levels, hence the tag line: “Gotta catch ‘em all.”

With technology’s ability to connect people, Pokemon Go gamers are meeting one another online and in real life. Cristina Amaya, one of the co-administrators of the DMV Pokemon Go Facebook group, created a platform for players to host Pokemon events, share tips and make friends. Since it started Thursday, the group has grown to nearly 6,000 members.

“I think it’s a community that builds upon the nostalgia factor of gaming,” said Ms. Amaya, a video game producer at Sparkypants Studios in Baltimore. “Pokemon is something a lot of us grew up with. A lot of people in the community are in their 20s and 30s.”

The co-administrators of the group, along with George Gard, another Pokemon Go user, will host an event for players at the National Mall on July 30. Participants will split into blue, yellow and red teams and battle Pokemon for four to five hours. More than 3,000 people are expected to attend.

For players to catch as many Pokemon as possible, they have to go to Pokestops, specific locations where players can get Pokecoins (in-game currency), raspberries (for feeding Pokemon) and Pokemon eggs.

Businesses in the United States are benefiting from Pokestops.

Derek Fridman is a executive creative director at Huge, an Atlanta-based company that uses a cafe to test digital marketing strategies. The coffee shop created a Pokestop to attract customers using the “lures” that can be bought with Pokecoins.

“It enhances the stop. The Pokestop will attract higher-level Pokemon. Once lured, it’s more beneficial to look for that stop,” Mr. Fridman said. “In total, we spent about $79 [over five days] to have lures out during our business hours every 30 minutes.”

However, that is likely to change with businesses using Pokemon Go as an advertising ploy.

“I think moving forward, there will be a conscious effort [by Nintendo] to filter out some of the more unnecessary locations and potentially monetize the new destinations,” Mr. Fridman said.

Pokemon Go is the most popular form of augmented reality using smartphones, and the technology is likely to show up elsewhere. Michael Koziol, president of Huge, said any serious business needs to learn about digital marketing using augmented reality.

“This Pokemon Go took the world by storm, and it really looked like Pokemon Go was the craze, [but] this type of activity is going to be a really important wave of interactive design that comes in the future,” Mr. Koziol said. “It’s something that all businesses need to understand.”

Catching them all can be risky: Players who used their Google accounts to log in were concerned that Niantic had access to their email and Google drive.

In a statement from its website, Niantic said, “Pokemon GO only accesses basic Google profile information (specifically, your User ID and email address) and no other Google account information is or has been accessed or collected.”

Niantic worked with Google to fix the issue for Android phones and resolved in the first update for Apple’s iPhones.

Catching Pokemon isn’t all fun and games: Multiple robberies related to Pokemon Go have occurred across the country. In O’Fallon, Missouri, four teens were arrested for luring and robbing players at game locations. At the University of Maryland, College Park, three people were robbed while playing the game, campus police said.

Michael Baker, a 21-year-old from Forest Grove, Oregon, was so determined to catch all of the Pokemon that he continued playing even after he was stabbed at 1 a.m.

“I saw him go by and asked if he was playing Pokemon Go. He was like, ‘What?’ I guess he wanted to battle because he came up at me with a knife,” Mr. Baker told Oregon’s Fox 12 news station.

When the game loads, it tells players to pay attention to their surroundings. But this warning is not enough to stay safe. Police departments are urging players to take precautions and obey the law.

In Virginia, the Goochland County Sheriff’s Office posted on its Facebook page that it had found residents trespassing at businesses, government buildings and churches after closing time. In Florida, the Sarasota County Police Department tweeted a picture of Charizard on a police car with the caption: “Don’t catch and drive.”

Players can keep their hands off the wheel if they hire a Pokemon chauffeur. People are putting up Craigslist ads offering to drive gamers around the city to catch Pokemon. One ad from Arlington reads:

“I’ll be driving around DC and the best catch zones, and you’ll be catching and visiting every PokeStop you can!”

Drivers accommodate players who are incubating Pokemon eggs. Players must walk a certain distance before the egg hatches. For example, a player can redeem a 2-kilometer walk for a common Jigglypuff, and a 10-kilometer walk is redeemable for a rare and powerful Snorlax.

Although the game won’t count the walk if it exceeds 12 mph, Pokemon drivers offer to go slow enough to incubate the digital egg.

“Due to the speed we have to drive at to incubate eggs we will be avoiding highways and major roads,” a D.C. Craigslist ad says.

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