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July 14, 2016

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Monsters everywhere! Pokemon is back, stirring up new mania

POKEMON Go, the latest rage in smartphone entertainment, allows players to walk around real-life neighborhoods in search of virtual Pokemon monsters.

Since its debut in overseas markets several days ago, the Nintendo franchise game has been installed in more phones than the dating application Tinder. It’s rivaling Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram in netizen use, according to web analytics firm SimilarWeb. Everyone is talking about it on social websites like Facebook, Weibo and WeChat.

So what’s this new age version of a scavenger hunt all about?

Simply explained, Pokemon Go uses a smartphone’s GPS and clock to detect where and when a user is in the game. It has Pokemon monsters “appear” around you on your phone screen. The idea is that you have to find them and catch them. The game is available as a free download on Android and iOS in countries where it has officially debuted.

Powered by augmented reality, the game is fueling a revival in a Nintendo creation that was so popular back in the late 1990s. Shares in Nintendo Co have surged this week, adding US$9 billion to their value.

The craze has also pushed up the prices of augmented reality-related shares in China, even though the game hasn’t officially debuted here.

The sudden success of the game underscores the common wisdom that products and technologies representing the future are hits with consumers, regardless of what venture capitalists and tech experts have to say about the direction of new age developments.

Pokemon Go, released this month and financially backed by Nintendo, Google and other tech giants, allows users to see virtual Pokemon monsters everywhere around them — on street corners, in workplaces and even inside bathrooms.

From a Shanghai-based lawyer to a Guangzhou public relations executive, the game is earning enthusiastic early reviews in China from those who have access to it.

Lawyer Sun Chen said she “caught” Pokemen monsters near her office in downtown Shanghai.

“It’s like finding landmarks in team buildings, but in an exciting way,” said Sun, who admits she has been concerned about the stability of GPS signals for the game in China.

Media are reporting that the game is helping people fight depression and anxiety because it encourages activity outdoors. It’s especially good at getting stay-at-home nerds off their duffs and out the door for some fresh air and exercise.

Mia, a PR executive in Guangzhou, posted her game character of Level 9 on her WeChat account after playing the game for two days.

How could I resist? Encouraged by colleagues, I downloaded the game. I have to admit that it wasn’t all that simple in China. I used an overseas iTunes account to install Pokemon Go on my iPhone and activated it through my Google account. I caught my first Pokemon monster sitting on a bin in the Shanghai Daily office.

The magic of the game mainly comes from the technology called augmented reality, which combines the virtual and real worlds. The technology is expected to usher in a new era for the mobile game and entertainment industries, said Zhongtai Securities in a report.

As one of the future technologies, augmented reality is often mentioned in the same breath as virtual reality. One of the most famous augmented reality gadgets is Google Glass.

By 2020, the market value of the new industry will hit US$120 billion, surpassing estimates for the virtual reality market, according to research firm Digi-Capital.

Alvin Wang, the president of HTC Vive China, called Pokemon Go “insane” on his WeChat account, though HTC hasn’t yet installed augmented reality on HTC Vive, one of the top virtual reality devices in the world.

Mobile gaming is the most promising application for augmented reality technology. It brings opportunities to domestic game developers and publishers like Wuxi Boton Technology Co, Meisheng Cultural & Creative Corp and Alpha Group, whose shares have surged in the recent days.

However, China still needs more technological research in computing vision, space positioning and movement capture, said Zhongtai Securities.

“No Chinese game firms are capable of the likes of Pokemon Go,” said a local game developer who declined to be identified.

Augmented reality technology also has prospects for use in retailing and advertising. For example, game developers can cooperate with retailers to set up special “monsters” in their stores to lure foot traffic inside.

Augmented reality is also used in machine-connection interfaces, like eye-contacting and gesture control. The firm Leap Motion has installed the technology in parts of Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo computers.

However, Pokemon Go has sometimes gone beyond fun and games.

When it kicked off in the United States, Australia and New Zealand, concerns were raised about the safety of players who go looking for monsters while walking on the streets or driving cars. In some reported cases, players have gone into police stations to capture virtual prey.

According to a report in New Zealand, the game’s landmarks led players to the headquarters of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang, while a landmark in Sydney turned out to be the backdoor of a methadone clinic for heroin addicts.

In the US state of Missouri, armed robbers used the game to lure victims to an isolated spot, while in Wyoming, a player found a corpse in water when the game led her to the banks of a local river.


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