We speak to John Hanke, head of the Google-owned augmented reality tech development Niantic Labs, about creating the hottest AR game of the moment,
Beneath this world, full of mundane work and chores and ho-hum everyday things, lies another layer of existence chock-full of wonderful, borderline mystical excitement. This almost alternative reality isn't secret, per se – it's just that most people don't know how to really see it.
This is the premise of Ingress, an invite-only gaming app favored by Android geekorati. And this very 'secret world' premise is seemingly built into the bones of Niantic Labs, the clandestine Google outfit behind Ingress and Field Trip, Niantic's other forward-thinking app.
Niantic's hidden worlds are paving the way for a new reality when situationally intelligent data (like Google Now) and wearable computing (like Google Glass) become the norm. Beyond this world of smartphones and physical senses lie vast swathes of new possibilities, hints of truly augmented realities. Niantic Labs wants to blaze the trail for these technologies.
"The goal?" Niantic head John Hanke repeats when I ask him what the grand goal for Ingress is, aside from coaxing otherwise sedentary gamers deeper out of their basement cocoons. He pauses for a moment.
What is Ingress?
But before we delve into the future, we have to delve into the game. First and foremost, Ingress was built to be just plain fun – and just plain useless unless you put your boots on the ground and wander out into the world.
Ingress, currently in invite-only beta on Android, is an augmented reality game that forces players to choose between two factions – the Enlightened and the Resistance – and then take to the physical streets and battle the opposing force for control of Portals set in real-world locations. Deploying virtual resonators and shields beefs up your own Portals, while hack attacks break down the opposition's strongholds. Portals in close proximity can be linked together to form Control Fields if your team controls them all, and the population count of the areas in a Control Field adds to your faction's global score.
All of the action takes place on your smartphone screen, an augmented reality layered over a Google Maps-powered grid of local streets. Chat functions let you plan group maneuvers or taunt the enemy. (Resistance for life!)
That's an ultra-basic description; the game is a lot more fun (and detailed) than that staid explanation.
Making things even more interesting is the deep backstory Niantic has actively woven around the game, a tale of conspiracy and secret codes and mind-controlling Shapers from other dimensions, all propelled forward by the Niantic Project website, an Ingress YouTube Channel, and the Ingress and Niantic Project Google+ accounts. There are even Ingress books.
Characters from the narrative frequently turn in up the real world, such as Misty Hannah and Klue S.'s recent appearance at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, the big Ingress battle at Google I/O, and the mysterious "Anomaly" event scheduled for June 7 in Cross Plains, Texas.
Taken as a whole, Ingress is an awesome game, but beyond that, it's also an awesome experience if you drink deep from the universe Niantic has cultivated. Try it out if you can--you can request an invite on the Niantic Project website, beg a current player (like me!) for an invite, or ping the Ingress Google+ account with a creative request to try and crack open the door.
It's hella fun, and it sprouted from very simple roots. John Hanke wants you to go outside.
Just go outside!
"When we set up the Niantic group, the goal was to look at this intersection of mobile and location – and entertainment, to some extent – and try to build apps that would encourage people to get the most out of their city, or town, or of being outside," John says.
Exploring the intersection of location and mobility and technology – "ubiquitous computing," as it's often called – is nothing new for John (right). Before leading up Niantic, he led product management for Google's Geo division of location-based services, and before that, John founded Keyhole, a company that was eventually bought by Google and transformed into the seminal Google Earth.
"We want to encourage people to move and explore," John continues. "Those higher-level goals inspired both Field Trip and Ingress – they kind of grew up together. They share some DNA."
More than being just talk, that philosophy is built into the bones of Ingress.
Virtually all of Ingress's Portals are situated around major landmarks of native interest: Markers, museums, statues, parks, esteemed places of learning, restaurants shaped like footwear, or similar locations. (Users can also submit local landmarks for Portal consideration.) And to gain the "Exotic Matter" energy needed to battle for those Portals, you'll often need to traverse parks, walkways, and other off-the-beaten-path locales.
That said, Niantic is part of Google. Information generated by Ingress is being used as a testing ground for something bigger – a guinea pig for software built for wearable computers and augmented reality.
Peering at the future
"The first generation of mobile apps were basically desktop apps transplanted to mobile," John explains. "Then we started to see apps that could only really exist on mobile--things that take advantage of mobility, location, sensors, and other various things that are unique to mobile, so that you have these experiences that are kind of native to mobile. That was the second phase.
"I think the third phase is the evolution toward what comes after the cellphone, in terms of wearable computing," he continues. "There are a lot of different things out there. There are things like Google Glass coming, and there's the Pebble watch and Fitbit and various things like that that people are playing around with.
"So there's this whole wave of devices coming that are sort of post-cellphone. We wanted to kind of anticipate that, and be at the forefront of what that next wave of apps will be like. With Ingress, we wanted to make a really fun, location-based game that would kind of take advantage of those devices when they're available on the market."
Although an Ingress Glass app has yet to be created, Hanke hopes to eventually open up some of the technology used in Ingress to encourage other developers to create even more augmented reality apps. Remember Niantic's notable presence at Google I/O?
"That's the long-term goal," Hanke says, "to pioneer the path and make sure Google's a leader in that area."
All about the ads
But again, this is a division of Google we're talking about here. Part of Niantic's long-term goal includes figuring out how to best monetize the ubiquitous computing experience. Nobody wants banner ads and pop-ups screaming half an inch from their eyeballs all day long.
"We're interested in exploring new kinds of monetization that can exist in the world of these apps," John says. He's quick to explain that Google isn't pressuring Niantic to fund itself immediately, though.
"It's more a case of we want to understand what kind of monetization opportunities might be possible in this location-based, mobile, ubiquitous computing world. It's more that we want to understand that than any sort of (monetization) pressure. We view these products as a way to explore this application space, and that includes monetization opportunities. We've been upfront about that."
"Frankly, we've had a ton of fun working with these partners, and thinking it out, and working with these brands to incorporate them into the game that add to the gameplay rather than taking away from it," John says. Promotional partners have proven willing to grope through the dark with Niantic, trying new advertorial methods that tie more directly into the apps. Scoutmob's free daily deals have been integrated within Field Trip. Zipcar and Jamba Juice (below) locations have been turned into Ingress Portals (and sometimes stock other goodies), while physical Duane Reade stores have been outfitted with barcodes that can be scanned to grant in-game weapons.
"By and large, I think we've had success in that regard," John explains. "We've developed characters in conjunction with Zipcar and Jamba Juice that have made their way into the game, so some of the interactions affect gameplay, and others integrate the brands into the story."
Some may find the inclusion of in-game advertising distasteful, but as an avid user of both apps, I can say that none of the promotional material is obnoxious; in fact, thus far it all truly adds to the experience.
That's not to say Niantic's efforts are free from future pitfalls, however.
The privacy question
To be fair, the experimental, self-proclaimed "ubiquitous" nature of Niantic's apps would theoretically be ideal suppliers for Google's vast data silos. The blend of GPS data and your physical reaction to Field Trip notifications could be a treasure trove for decoding behavioral trends, while Ingress's very design lends itself well to enhancing an area of Google Maps that could benefit from some extra attention.
None of that is happening, though. Or at least not yet.
"We're trying to map (Ingress) energy to places where people walk, and walking paths, and so on," John says. "Could it help Google Maps? Probably yes. We're not currently doing that. But it could... If activities in the game can ultimately have the effect of helping Google's map data, I would say that's great, but it definitely wasn't the driving force behind the creation of the game."
In fact, Niantic's apps are so self-contained that they don't even directly share data with each other. When I questioned Hanke about the way Ingress Portal information can appear in Field Trip if you use both apps, he said that Ingress doesn't receive any special treatment despite the fact that both apps were made in-house.
"Basically, Ingress is just another publisher for Field Trip," he says. "We treat Ingress the same way we treat Atlas Obscura, or Arcadia, or any of the other publishers in Field Trip."
That will likely change in time. As they become established, and especially if they help pioneer a path in wearable computing like Google Glass, Ingress and Field Trip will no doubt start sharing more information back and forth with other Google services.
Delving into new grounds brings new questions. The future doesn't change easily, to Larry Page's great sadness. But for today at least, Niantic Labs is treating your personal data with kiddie gloves, and it has already achieved one of its lofty goals.
Ingress itself is an absolute blast to play.