Over the past month or so Google have been busily handing out beta invite codes to a shady new app. It’s called Ingress and it comes from Niantic Labs, the team that created ‘Field Trip’, an interesting (but US-limited) way of finding out local trivia. In the vein of everything Google, Ingress is a free app that is doing some very strange things.
It’s a game in essence, buried under layers of pretty comprehensive sci-fi storyline. Players have to physically walk around trying to find ‘nodes’ which are usually located in places of popular interest: libraries, landmarks etc.
There are many thousands of these nodes dotted around the world, ready and waiting to be approached by players whose goal is to take control of them by ‘hacking’ them. There’s more to it, including setting up gigantic links between separate portals and defending them with ‘resonators’, and there are some fairly interesting uses of augmented reality, but that’s pretty much what it boils down to.
That’s all very well; another ‘groundbreaking’ game that people will tire of in a month or two. But Niantic Labs have stressed that this ‘game’ will be ending sometime in 2014, a piece of information that gives us a clue to what Ingress is really all about. A game being discontinued is something that we rarely hear about (apart from the infamous case of Rock Band for iPhone) because, logically, developers want to eke as much money out of their products as they can; it makes no sense to stop people buying.
To get a bit more of an insight we need to look into the last time Google stopped providing an otherwise useful service. Way back in 2007 they announced GOOG-411, a directory assistance service which would connect you to a business just by saying their name and location. When they discontinued it in 2010 it became clear that GOOG-411 was more than just a clever bit of technology, they’d been using it to gather huge amounts of data for their voice recognition software.
It was a great idea; provide the public with a useful service and in return harmlessly farm information that would vastly improve one of their products. It was a novel approach to research, a lesson to all of those companies that send feckless interns out onto the street to garner some uninterested passer-by’s opinion.
Skip forward to the end of 2012 and the Ingress picture is coming into focus. Pretty soon there’ll be thousands of GPS enabled people dutifully ambling around almost every country on earth. Apply the GOOG-411 logic and you can see what Google are doing; they’re using you as a path-walking, route-taking, picture snapping data mine.
Google Maps’ walking directions are currently pretty good; but in my experience they’re much better in cities and built up areas where walking routes are often alongside roads, which Google already knows quite a lot about. If they want to improve their walking direction service then they’re going to need a lot of juicy, proven data about where people can and can’t walk.
Enter you with your smartphone, walking around with your 3G and GPS, following walking routes between places and reporting your every move back to their servers. You’re letting them know not only where people can walk, but also which routes are most frequently used and how long it takes to walk along them. All in the guise of what is actually an ingenious piece of gaming.
But they don’t stop there. Does your local library/town hall/greasy spoon not have a portal? They’ve given you the facility to make it one! Just take a picture of it, give it a name and they’ll review it to see whether it fits the criteria. A couple of weeks later and your chosen spot could have its very own hackable, defendable portal.
Oh, and also Google get more popular locations, more data on local areas and more images to scan for useful information a la Streetview. They even suggest you recommend ‘unique local businesses’ as potential portal locations; a prime opportunity for more advertising revenue for the US search behemoth.
Ingress has already attracted a lot of interest; unsurprising from a new kind of AR gaming run by one of the most innovative companies in the world. The competitive, us vs. them hacking gameplay is unique; there are already fan pages and groups that are coordinating together to build up their own networks of nodes. And to those who don’t want to rule the world, the J.J. Abrams-esque storyline is there to give them a reward for their efforts.
It’s achingly clever stuff, and unlike most attempts by gigantic multinationals to suck data out of people, I find that I’m not so bothered about it when it’s done like this. They could have just logged all of your movement data and tried to figure out how much of it was done on foot, or employed some poor souls to walk around logging pathways and taking pictures.
But instead we get Ingress. We get a fun gaming experience, they get some anonymous data, and then we get a better user experience from other apps. It’s intelligent, mutually beneficial and a breath of fresh air in this increasingly aggressive world of data collection. Let’s hope we see more like it.