LOS ANGELES - It is no coincidence that more people in North America and Europe are bending over their mobile phones while walking outside. It is the effect of the free mobile game, Pokemon Go. Since its launch earlier this month, the game has gone viral, and more countries are expected to be able to access the game in the future.
Pokemon Go uses augmented reality technology. It combines a real world map, and superimposes virtual cartoon images to the physical world in the cameras of mobile phones. Players walk around hunting for Pokemons, short for Pocket Monsters. When they appear on their phone's screen, players can catch them, train them, and battle other monsters.
"I got more than a hundred creatures now, and my favorite is Pikachu," said Lin Cao, a University of Southern California student from China who was walking to the library on campus while looking for more Pokemons.
Cao was not alone. The campus this summer was crawling with people on the hunt for Pokemons.
Pokemon Go has been named by SurveyMonkey Intelligence as the biggest game of 2016 based on the number of daily active users. According to Sensor Tower, a company that monitors a mobile application's performance, a snapshot of one day showed that users spent more time on Pokemon Go than Facebook and Snapchat.
On the same day, another data analytics site, SimilarWeb, shows that 5.9 percent of all U.S. Android owners used the Pokemon Go app. It surpassed the number of people who used the Twitter app that day.
"Sometimes I feel like a lot of people just get addicted to the game. They spend a lot of time on it," Cao said, adding, "a lot of my friends, they just come to the campus every day in order to get the creatures."
Some players said there are unexpected benefits to playing the game.
"You need to walk a lot, so it actually helps you to walk and explore the surroundings you maybe haven't explored before," Cao said. "I actually plan to go to Santa Monica this weekend with my friend because I've heard that there are a lot of creatures, special creatures there."
At Santa Monica Pier, where many tourists visit, there were plenty of players in search of more Pokemons.
Adam Rose drove more than one-and-a-half hours to hunt for Pokemons at Santa Monica Pier. He met another player, Timothy Glenn. Both avid gamers, they said this game forced them out of their homes and opened up the world to them.
"It allows you to meet new people, like I just met him today less than an hour ago," Glenn said.
While many players are enjoying the game, it has dangerous consequences for some. There are reports of car accidents across the United States because of people playing the game, as well as players being robbed, and even a couple of players walking off cliffs.
"We love to be hip and cool. We love to embrace what's next, but we don't always think before we jump,” said Todd Richmond with University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies. “I think that part of the power of these digital capabilities, both virtual and augmented reality, are so compelling — or they can be so compelling in some cases — that they are addictive, and they do cause you to behave in ways that you wouldn't normally do."
Richmond has been researching virtual and augmented reality for years before the technologies were made public. He said augmented reality, while still in its infancy, will eventually touch every aspect of life, including commerce.
"AR [augmented reality] is about bringing digital things into your physical space, and it's still your physical space,” he said. “That's a transaction that is a lot easier for humans to process, but it's also potentially a lot more dangerous because now you have the possibility of feeding ads to everyone everywhere."
Using augmented reality in a game such as Pokemon Go is a preview of what is to come.
Richmond said this new technology can enrich life, but be warned: Any new technology can also be exploited.