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On Sunday night, Crane’s Roost Park in Altamonte was crowded with people looking at their phones. They weren’t texting. They weren’t being anti-social. They were trying to catch ‘em all.

Around 2,000 people gathered Sunday night to play Pokémon GO, the newest game in the Pokémon franchise. The goal is the same as in previous games: catch fictional animals called Pokémon, train them and battle for control of gyms. But there are a few key differences in this new game, which is played on smartphones rather than gaming consoles. The biggest difference: in order to move your avatar in the game, you have to move in real life.

“The game dropped in the U.S. at 11 p.m. … The minute it did, I downloaded it and started walking,” Pokémon GO player Stefan Billups said. He walked seven miles on the first night and met 12 people also playing Pokémon GO.

Although the game doesn’t give players the ability to battle each other or trade Pokémon, like the original games do, it provides opportunities for players to socialize, not just at meetups like this one, but at any spot where the fictional animals might be hiding.

“Right now, it’s a matter of catching Pokémon, letting other people know where they’re spawning and taking over gyms,” Billups said.

When Miguel Garcia, an Orlando resident, created the meetup, he only planned on inviting his friends. Then the Facebook event page blew up, and strangers from all over Orlando were interested in going. He said he was expected a couple hundred people to show up; instead, thousands came, including families with kids.

“It just kind of got out of hand,” he said.

A big component of Pokémon GO’s social aspect is the fact that it’s an augmented reality game. Dr. Rudy McDaniel, assistant dean of research and technology for the UCF College of Arts and Humanities, said augmented reality is a combination of virtual images and visual data from the real world.

“So, instead of experiencing a purely virtual environment, you experience the real environment accompanied by computer-generated, virtual information,” he said.

In order to play the game to its fullest extent, players have to go outside and explore their real-world environment in order to see and interact with the virtual Pokémon.

The game isn’t the first to utilize augmented reality. It was preceded by Ingress, an AR game that has a science fiction backstory and is also played on smartphones. But it appears to be the first in an emerging movement toward augmented- and virtual-reality gaming.

“With high-quality consumer-grade VR products like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift hitting the market, as well as increasingly sophisticated smartphones and mobile computing devices, we are on the verge of a new wave of popularity for AR games,” McDaniel said. “The current Pokémon craze is the first evidence of this.”

For those not willing to spend $799 on an HTC Vive, Google has released Cardboard, a virtual reality viewer that users can buy for $15 and connect to their smartphones. This accessible hardware, in addition to solutions for complicated AR software, has led to “technology that is usable and popular enough to make AR possible for the average user,” McDaniel said. Now, users can play AR games wherever they can take their smartphones.

There are applications for augmented reality outside of gaming, too.

“We are just starting to scratch the surface of what is possible with this technology,” McDaniel said. “A medical practitioner in training might learn how to adjust an IV bag by watching the virtual flow rate of a liquid through a real IV system.”

In addition to job training, augmented reality can be used — and, in the case of Google Glass, is already in use — in everyday situations.

“You could be looking at a real restaurant’s exterior, then see virtual Yelp reviews superimposed over the store as you looked at the building,” McDaniel said.

Companies can use AR technology in advertisements, and travelers can use apps that translate signs instantly.

But the technology is not without its flaws. The virtual images can distract users from the real world, resulting in accidents. This risk is present in Pokémon GO, where players might wander into traffic or other dangerous areas to catch Pokemon.

There is also the question of user privacy. McDaniel said if information captured from the real world is sent to the companies creating the games, there is potential for the information to be disseminated. Companies could sell the information to advertisers, or hackers could cause security breaches. The key lies within the terms and conditions of each game a player downloads. Just like a trainer has to be aware of his real-life surroundings when catching virtual Pokémon, a player has to know what real-life private information he sacrifices by downloading a virtual game.

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Allison Miehl is a contributing writer for the Central Florida Future.

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