Technology

Pokémon Go is a go in KC as 200 turn out for midnight hunt on the Plaza

eadler@kcstar.com

Holy Pikachu, is that a Squirtle in the Plaza fountain?

And over there. Quick, capture it, that purple, red-eyed Venonat by the Kaldi’s coffee house.

“I caught a Nidoran right by the North Face” store, said musician Daniel Cole, 25, pausing between street gigs Monday with his band, Run With It.

As it is globally, so it is in Kansas City: The walking-around, head-down, eyes-glued-on-your-smartphone search for virtual Pokémon “pocket monsters” is on.

On Wednesday, Google spinoff Niantic, working with the Pokémon Co., released the free smartphone app Pokémon Go, with characters based on the 1990s television show, games and cards. The app allows users to search their buildings, businesses and the streets they walk on in the real world to capture virtual Pokémon characters that become visible to them on the screens of their Apple and Android smartphones.

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The result is a fad or phenomenon perhaps unseen since the crazed days of Angry Birds, with Pokémon Go ranked No. 1 in app stores. Shares of Nintendo, a prominent stakeholder in the app, skyrocketed more than 33 percent, to $27.70 a share, on Monday.

Gathering at 11 p.m. Sunday, long after the Country Club Plaza’s stores were closed and dark, scores upon scores of Pokémon Go devotees, known as “trainers,” met to wander the streets, eyes on their glowing cellphones in a massive hunt that lasted until close to 2 a.m.

“I counted around 200 people or so. There could have been more because people just started running around chasing Pokémon,” said Jenni Fenice, 27, who had gone online to give word of the meetup barely 12 hours earlier.

Pokémon Go is what is known as an augmented reality game. Getting players out of the house and interacting with others, it works simply enough.

Once the app is downloaded, it shows Pokémon characters on an animated map of one’s actual surroundings on the phone’s screen. When switched to the augmented reality view, the app uses the phone’s camera to allow the trainer to see the Pokémon character in the real-life setting, standing on a street corner, on a tabletop, near a fountain.

Users then swipe Pokéballs at the mini monsters to capture them. There’s more, such as Poké Spots where trainers can restock on Pokéballs and other gear, “lures” that draw in monsters and players, and “gyms” for trainers to do battle.

“I’m walking around the Plaza, Kansas City, seeing all these millennials walking around aimlessly with their smart phones out, not texting, trying to catch Pokemon,” one fan posted on Facebook. “Parks are more full than they have ever been before. … They’re unified by one common purpose, to catch ’em all.”

Kansas City Pokémon Twitter, Facebook and Meetup pages are already established, announcing nighttime “Pokéwalks” for Monday, Wednesday and Friday at Union Station, downtown, the River Market and the Plaza.

Kenzie Lester, 22, of Gladstone, was certainly among the faithful Monday morning as packs of people, couples and individuals, wandered the Plaza’s streets, watching their phones for yellow Pidgeys, double-headed Doduos, orange, canine Growlithes, purple Zubats and other creatures.

“We came at 7:30,” said Lester, with her friend, Suzanna Aragon, 20, still on the Pokémon prowl four hours later.

“Look over there,” Lester said, pointing to a group of five young adults just outside Talbots. “They’re doing it, too.”

In fact, it seemed Monday morning that more people were searching for Pokémon on Plaza sidewalks than were just there walking. The hunt was going on throughout the metro area, even inside office buildings where employees could search for and often find the cartoon creatures perched, flapping their wings or preening, inside cubicles, crouched in hallways or even atop desks.

At Independence Square, Jonathan Reinig, manager at Game Cafe, said the square has been teeming with Pokémon searchers. That’s led to more foot traffic in his store.

“It’s hard to tell right now,” he said, “if that increase will translate to sales. We’ll know more by the end of the month.”

But he’s already happy with the app, as it has improved relations between him and his wife.

“It’s actually awesome,” Reinig said, “because I’m a supernerd and my wife is a country cowgirl. We both downloaded the app, and we’ve been taking hikes together.”

Certainly not everything about the app has been fun and games.

“When I was walking toward the door of the Brookside Price Chopper this evening, a young woman drove her Prius into me, thankfully, at low speed so I was able to wind up on her hood evading injury,” one Facebook post read. “She was playing Pokémon Go. I kid you not.”

The Kansas Highway Patrol has tweeted out a warning, “No #PokémonGO when driving,” with pictures of Pokémon on the dashboard.

On the Plaza, pedestrians shouting “Wait, wait, wait!” Monday prevented a pack of Pokémon Go friends from walking into traffic.

Police in O’Fallon, Mo., near St. Louis, warned of Pokémon robberies in which criminals have used the draw of Poké Stops — spots on an actual map where users can stock up on different virtual Poké items — to lure victims for robberies. In Wyoming, one Poké wanderer searching for the little monsters was led to a river where, by happenstance, there was also a dead body.

In the United Kingdom, where the app has yet to be released, some Android users eager to get their hands on the app may already have downloaded a sham version designed to give hackers access to their cellphones.

In Topeka, as an act of political commentary, a pink fairy Pokémon known as a Clefairy was placed, ready to battle, in front of Westboro Baptist Church, long known for its intolerance of gays.

Westboro responded Monday with a flurry of responses on its Twitter account, using Pokémon references, including “Pikachu wants to warn his neighbor! #quote #PokemonGO *Pikachu, I mean YOU are going to hell ‘cept you REPENT!*”

But most common have been nationwide media accounts of Pokémon Go users, distracted or oblivious to where they are going, tripping, falling or walking into sign posts and other people.

“Some bumped into me yesterday. I tried to get out of the way,” said Emily Lohman, 30, of Kansas City. She said she was walking near the shuttlecock sculptures on the lawn of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art when two young women, searching for Pokémon with their heads down, plowed into her.

“Two teenage girls,” she said. “Actually, they were probably not teenagers. They were in their mid-20s.”

Still, Lohman is hardly against the activity.

“It gets people outside,” she said, and perhaps is a fun, welcome distraction from what she called “the flood of horrors that is the news right now.”

Said 22-year-old Van Nguyen of Blue Springs, “It’s really, like, super fun.” For her, growing up with the Pokémon television show, it offers a return to a sweet and cherished part of her childhood.

“It’s just really cool that us ’90s babies are allowed to play,” she said.

Nearby, around Starbucks, Peter Mascal, 19, of Mission, and Fritz Kiteck, 17, of Overland Park, were chasing down Pokémon. Anna Costello, 12, who was visiting her grandmother from North Carolina, was on the hunt, as was Sam Friedman, 15, visiting from Minneapolis.

Jennifer Barrios, 31, of Olathe, was homing in on a Doduo with her son, 6-year-old Jacob.

“It’s a nice way to bond over a ridiculous thing,” Barrios said, and turned to her son, giving him a hug. “But it’s fun, isn’t it, buddy?”

“Yeah,” Jacob said as he hugged his mom’s waist.

“Love you,” she said.

“Love you, too,” Jacob returned. They played on.

Eric Adler: 816-234-4431, @eadler

Ruth Serven: 816-234-4201, @RuthServen

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