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The Big Read: Pokemon Go fades, but AR tech may now get its day in the sun

SINGAPORE — Mr Andrew Law, 24, works as a recruitment consultant by day and is a Pokemon hunter by night. He stake outs various locations across the island, phone in hand, and with eyes on his targets. And he is not alone, as the latest game craze sweeps the world, including Singapore.

Although the initial hype over Pokemon Go has died down, crowds are still a common sight - albeit smaller - at several hot spots for Pokemon hunting. (From left to right) The crowd at Block 401 Hougang Avenue 10 on Aug 11; the crowd on Aug 31 at the same location. Photo: Ooi Boon Keong, Raj Nadarajan

Although the initial hype over Pokemon Go has died down, crowds are still a common sight - albeit smaller - at several hot spots for Pokemon hunting. (From left to right) The crowd at Block 401 Hougang Avenue 10 on Aug 11; the crowd on Aug 31 at the same location. Photo: Ooi Boon Keong, Raj Nadarajan

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SINGAPORE — Mr Andrew Law, 24, works as a recruitment consultant by day and is a Pokemon hunter by night. He stake outs various locations across the island, phone in hand, and with eyes on his targets. And he is not alone, as the latest game craze sweeps the world, including Singapore.

Over the past three weeks, thousands here have been engulfed by the Pokemon Go mania.

Mr Law, for example, would spend 10 hours on average, after work each day and stretching into the wee hours, playing the game. Often, he would walk for 6km from his home in Sengkang to Hougang, catching virtual monsters, hatching eggs and collecting game items along the way.

Personal trainer Khidhir Yunos, 27, recalled how he once went on an overnight Pokemon hunt after supper, around Bishan, Thomson and Ang Mo Kio with his friends, before going back to work the next morning. It was tiring but fun nonetheless, he said.

Launched in Singapore on Aug 6, the game involves players searching for and capturing cartoon characters from the Pokemon franchise on their mobile devices. The characters are shown in real-world settings. “Pokestops” and lures are scattered across various locations, allowing players to get free in-game items at the former, while the latter attracts Pokemon to the location — as well as the players hoping to catch them.

The game, developed by US company Niantic, and its massive following have made headlines around the world and it is no different in Singapore: Even after the initial hype has died down, crowds are still a common sight — albeit smaller — at hot spots for Pokemon hunting such as Block 401 Hougang Avenue 10, Vivocity, Chinese Gardens, and Yishun Park.

The game’s runaway success has drawn some backlash all over the world, including over privacy and safety concerns.

Accusations of cultural insensitivities have also been levelled at the creators, after Pokemon hunters swarmed places such as the Holocaust Museum in the United States and Poland’s Auschwitz Memorial.

In Singapore, the large crowds at Hougang have irked some residents because of jaywalking and the litter left behind. Last month, the police also arrested a motorist and a pedestrian — who was playing Pokemon Go — after they got into a scuffle.

Nevertheless, the Pokemon Go craze is not the first — nor will it be the last — fad that grips the world. Some experts have already declared that the game has reached its peak in terms of popularity — barely two months after it was launched on July 6 in the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

Mirroring the trend elsewhere, interest in the game has waned in Singapore, going by anecdotal evidence.

Some players tell TODAY that they have stopped playing or cut down the time spent on the game — either the novelty had worn off or they found themselves spending so much time on the game that it was affecting their social life and performance at work or in school.

Mr Law said he had received feedback from his colleagues and bosses that his performance at work was being affected by his obsession with the game. There were times when he stayed up all night playing Pokemon Go, said Mr Law, so he now takes regular breaks from the game.

While it could be a matter of time before Pokemon Go goes the way of the Tamagotchi — a handheld digital pet sold by Japan company Bandai that became one of the biggest toy fads of the 1990s before it faded into oblivion — experts and industry observers believe the game will have a lasting impact, not least in making augmented reality mainstream and giving a boost to local companies that have been using the technology in various fields including gaming, medicine, education and retail, to name just a few.

NATURAL PROGRESSION OF GAME

Data compiled by Axiom Capital Management released last month showed that the game’s popularity is on a downhill trend. At the height of its popularity, Pokemon Go had 45 million daily active users worldwide. Now, it is down to around 32 million. Among other things, engagement with the game is also down.

Axiom senior analyst Victor Anthony was quoted in a Bloomberg report saying that the declining trend “should assuage investor concerns about the impact of Pokemon Go on time spent” on other applications such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Mr Anthony also said that the drop in interest would also “cast aspersion” on the viability of augmented reality gaming at large.

However, other experts have said that any prediction of the game’s demise was premature. For example, Forbes contributor Erik Kain pointed out: “Dropping from 45 million active daily users to 32 million is not ‘dying’ or a ‘decline’. It’s the natural progression of a game with a massive launch fuelled by unprecedented hype.”

When TODAY visited Block 401 Hougang Ave 10 earlier this week, the crowd of about a hundred people was about 15 to 20 per cent smaller than its peak, just weeks earlier.

Among those who have quit playing is fresh graduate Alicia Tee, 23. She played only for a week before she stopped.

Her epiphany came during a Pokemon hunting trip to Yishun Park, when she saw many other players staring intently at their phones.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘this is so insane and quite pointless’,” she said.

Operations director Keat Chan used to spend as much as five to eight hours each day playing the game. He has since stopped, after feeling “burnt out”.

“The monotony of catching Pokemon, while providing instant gratification initially, proved to be an endless grind,” he said. He recalled how he was so engrossed in the game that it “threw a big wrench” into his daily routine, affecting his fitness levels and concentration at work.

On the other hand, interest among diehards such as Mr Khidhir is still strong.

What is it that is keeping him hooked? “A sense of satisfaction you get when you catch something rare, like a sense of achievement,” he said.

Mr Janzten Lee, a 19-year-old polytechnic student, created the Pokemon Go Hougang Facebook group. While he usually starts on a new game and quits playing soon after, he claimed that playing Pokemon Go was a gaming experience like no other.

The constant updates and the prospect of new Pokemon monsters being introduced, for example, sustains his interest in the game, he said.

Likewise, Ms Cherie Pang, 34, looks forward to the updates, which would keep her playing in order not to “miss out on anything new”. “I am still trying to get my hands on rare Pokemon. That will definitely keep me playing for a while,” she said.

Mr Khidhir said the game has enhanced his love life — he and his girlfriend would plan their dates around the locations where they go Pokemon-hunting.

“Last time we had some difficulty deciding where to go for dates but now, it is much easier thanks to Pokemon Go,” he said. Last weekend, for example, they went to the zoo together.

POWERFUL SOCIAL ELEMENT, A GAME FOR ALL AGES

So what is it about Pokemon Go that makes so many people crazy about it? For Mr Khidhir, the love affair began many years ago when he was a kid.

“I grew up with Pokemon, and played it on my Nintendo Gameboy. I don’t usually game much, but when I heard Pokemon Go was going to be launched here, I knew I had to download it to play,” he said.

Mr Lee has also been a fan of the Pokemon game series, for the past 12 years. He described Pokemon as an “icon of his childhood and his peers”.

He recalled how his girlfriend was initially worried that he would spend too much time on the game and neglect her. She has since joined him in playing the game, he said.

Other diehard fans said they were swept by the hype generated by the game before it was launched in Singapore.

“It’s been raved about so much overseas, and its delayed introduction in Singapore made me want to download it for myself,” Ms Tee said.

The simple game-play also meant Pokemon Go could appeal to players of all ages.

A homemaker, 53, who declined to be named, said she enjoys the game and plays it together with her two children aged 20 and 23. “I also have something in common to talk to (them) now,” she said.

Ms Pang said the game had taken her to places she would not have otherwise ventured to, such as Punggol.

For Mr Law, the game has helped him make many new friends. The regular at Block 401 Hougang Ave 10 said: “We have a common topic to talk about, and we will help each other out if one of us needs help catching a particular Pokemon.”

Apart from nostalgia, simple game-play and the powerful social element, the timing of the game’s release — to coincide with summer in the US — and the premise of getting players to leave the couch and go outdoors were among the factors that have contributed to Pokemon Go’s success globally.

In Singapore, there are additional factors such as the ease of getting around, safe streets and mild weather, players say. Ms Pang noted that she had no fear wandering around the island, at night sometimes, given “how safe our streets are”.

Industry players also hailed the runaway success of the game.

Mr Aung Kyaw Myo of game development company LanceAlpha noted that the game’s developers “were able to mix the right elements into a type of game that is unique”.

Eon Reality Singapore managing director Sridhar Sunkad said the game has brought people around the world together and created a new gaming culture, which has the potential for new ways of consumer engagement and other spin-offs.

In Belgium, for example, a primary school headmaster — inspired by the popularity of Pokemon Go — developed an online game for people to search for books, based on pictures and clues of hidden books posted on Facebook.

Here, various organisations have also tapped into the game’s popularity.

Insurance provider AIA started its AIA Vitality GO! Challenge where participants go for a walk along a 5km route filled with Pokemon characters.

AIA Singapore chief marketing officer Ho Lee Yen said: “Our first objective is to get people to become more active by being out and about catching Pokemon and hatching eggs.

“Linked to this, our second objective is to encourage Singaporeans to enjoy the experience with family and friends to strengthen their relationships in a fun, healthy way.”

POSSIBILITIES OF AUGMENTED REALITY

While the Pokemon Go craze is a recent phenomenon, the technology behind it — augmented reality — has existed since the 1990s. It involves the overlaying of virtual, computer generated images onto a real-world environment.

Associate Professor Wolfgang Mueller-Wittig of Nanyang Technological University (NTU) said that the public is getting a better understanding of what the technology is, thanks to Pokemon Go. Augmented reality has vast potential in other fields, beyond games, the experts pointed out.

Mr Jonathan Pillai, who is the course manager at Temasek Polytechnic’s diploma programme in Game Design & Development, noted that augmented reality can be applied in the tourism and retail industries because it “brings an added layer of information and inter-activity to the user”.

“Users will certainly find it more enjoyable and informative to see their daily objects or environments repurposed with a layer of augmented reality which brings new forms of interaction and deeper information,” he said.

At NTU’s medical school, students are using augmented reality for educational purposes. When they hover an iPad over a poster, for example, the images on it — as seen through the iPad — become three dimensional, said Assoc Prof Wolfgang.

The next step would be to use the technology on the study of human anatomy, he added. There is a lot of untapped potential for augmented reality to be embedded into the learning environment, he said.

Mr Aung noted that compared with commercial games, augmented reality can be better utilised in training and for educational purposes. However, the resources needed would be significantly higher than that in the development of commercial games, he said. Mr Pillai has no doubt that the technology will grow. “With most Singaporeans having a mobile device, the pervasiveness of augmented reality has increased,” he said.

“The ease of use and access to augmented reality via one’s mobile phone, has certainly added to the success of Pokemon Go. I would say, in turn, Pokemon Go has definitely shed more light on the possibilities of augmented reality to the general audience and also highlighted the readiness of the people or the market to try such technologies.”

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