SAN FRANCISCO -- Tiny, invisible monsters took the world by storm a year and a half ago, and they're about to do it again -- thanks to a new partnership between Apple and the makers of Pokemon Go that aims to bring the real and imaginary worlds closer together than ever.
"It was the sensation," Apple VP Greg Joswiak recalled. "Everybody was doing it."
When Pokemon Go launched in the summer of 2016, it took over parks and sidewalks, brought down cellular networks and even disturbed the peace in libraries and cemeteries.
"Everyone you saw, you could tell they were playing," said GameSpot associate editor Kallie Plagge.
The game brought back nostalgic characters for players who grew up in the 1990s, but also introduced something new: AR. or augmented reality -- that is, seeing virtual objects mixed in with the real world when you look at your phone.
"So that they really feel as if they're there, which is kind of what we want you to think," said John Hanke, CEO of Niantic, which makes Pokemon Go.
The original version of the game pushed phones to their limits -- implementing AR within the app using a lot of power-intensive "tricks" to achieve the magical effect.
"Pokemon, like, kills my battery," one player told us back in 2016 as he charged his phone from a Doblet charger inside a wine bar. Doblet, a charging-by-subscription startup, saw a 45 percent increase in usage when Pokemon Go first launched.
So for the new version of the game, launching just in time for Christmas, Niantic partnered with Apple to implement the iPhone maker's new software called "ARKit." Available on the iPhone 6S and later, it uses less battery power while making augmented reality look dramatically more real.
"They're actually sitting on the ground. And you can walk around them. They're there," Joswiak said.
Though Pokemon Go has always been about walking around to find and catch the imaginary creatures, the new feature called AR+ will add a new level of physicality to the game. Getting down on the ground helps you catch smaller Pokemon, while flying ones can soar up in the air above you if they get spooked.
"Right now, Pikachu, he's a little nervous," explained Niantic designer David Hollis as he crouched down carefully in the grass. "So I have to make sure to approach him in a really calm way, kind of like a National Geographic photographer."
In the new AR+ mode, getting close makes Pokemon easier to catch and can earn you a bonus. But make a sudden move, and you'll scare them away. Pikachu gave us a look of terror and darted off into a virtual bush that appeared to be growing out of the real grass in the park where we stood.
"Basically, it's a whole new way to play the game," Hanke said.
Because Apple's ARKit uses the iPhone's cameras and sensors to make a 3D map of the world around it, Pokemon can sit on flat surfaces, cast shadows and always appear at the right size. So while Pikachu is tiny enough to get you down on the ground tossing your PokeBalls, Snorlax will have you craning your neck to look into his beady eyes.
And speaking of things that are huge, Apple thinks AR will be transformative.
"We really do think it's one of these fundamental experience-changing features that is going to affect all of us. and what you're seeing here is the very beginning," Joswiak said.
For now, AR could spur renewed interest in Pokemon Go, Plagge said.
"But i'm not entirely convinced yet that it will bring it to the same level of social craze that it was when it launched," she added.
Bhe she said working with Apple -- and the publicity it brings -- could pave the way for another blockbuster in Niantic's next game, which the company says will involve Harry Potter.
"I think a lot of people want to be wizards and cast spells and stuff like that," Plagge said.
The updated version of Pokemon Go for iOS and Android will also feature new third-generation Pokemon, and different ones will appear depending on the weather (think fire Pokemon when it's a scorcher outside; water Pokemon when it's raining). But only Apple devices -- iPhone 6S and later -- will get the new AR+ feature. Niantic, which was spun off by Google in October 2015, has not announced support yet for Google's own augmented reality framework, ARCore, which was shown off at the October launch of the latest Pixel devices.
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