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Ingress - A Precursor of the World to Come

With over 500K active players, Ingress, the Google-funded augmented reality game for Android, is about to exit Beta and already marks a notable step forward in gaming and interactive media. As it scales, it could have a major psychological and material impact on our world.

Ingress as Indicator: Futurists, tech bloggers, entrepreneurs, investors and sci-fi writers all spend much time scouring the world for interesting signals from the edge to identify emerging trends or even the next big thing. In the past decade, many have zeroed in on gamification, augmented reality and the ongoing mobile explosion as important zones of development. Residing squarely at the intersection of these potent growth areas is Ingress, the quirky augmented reality game that hearkens to visions of the future contained in works like Snow Crash, Otherland and Rainbows End. As I’ve played the game (I’m up to Level 7 of 8), I’ve come to believe that it’s an important precursor of things to come.

Gameplay: Created by Niantic Labs, an internal Google startup that’s technically autonomous from the parent company, Ingress is both simple and very complex. Fundamentally, it splits players into two teams, Resistance & Enlightenment, that play in the context of a sci-fi storyline that progresses week-to-week. The two massive sides battle, in real-time, to control and link portals located at real-life places of interest such as libraries, museums, post offices, restaurants, murals, etc. You play by walking or driving around to portals and capturing them, then linking the portals together into triangles called control fields. Whichever team has the highest # of human population contained beneath their control fields is considered the current global leader. Notably, players can also earn points for submitting new portal by providing GPS tagged location photos.

Flying Under the Radar: Boasting a large, highly engaged player base, Ingress is a fascinating case study on multiple levels. But it’s been able to fly under the radar largely due to the popular perception that it’s purely a game. Expect that perception to change as the Ingress platform continues to evolve and bloggers and other experts continue to notice its traction and potential impact on information gathering, work and social interaction.

10 reasons to pay attention to Google’s great Ingress experiment

  1. The Hanke Factor: Ingress is the brainchild of John Hanke, the creator of Keyhole, which was purchased by Google and then became Google Earth. Hanke went on to work as Google’s VP of Product Management overseeing the impressive Geo division (Google Earth, Maps, Places, Local, StreetView, SketchUp, and Panoramio) and then created Niantic Labs as an autonomous entity under the Google umbrella. He’s a big-thinker and achiever with a great feel for launching geo-products and platforms utilized by billions who is unlikely to waste his time on something not-massive. In light of CEO Larry Page’s focus on projects with massive scaling potential and his reported desire to keep Hanke and Niantic in-house, it’s obvious that Google views Ingress as more than just a game. Among other things, it’s an attempt to create a new mobile-phone-based system that can extend Google’s information gathering abilities into the rapidly emerging geosocial sphere.

  1. Serious Traction: In just under a year of closed beta 500k+ users are actively playing Ingress. I was lucky to receive an early invite and have played on-and-off since January. I very much enjoy the game, though many of my less techy friends regard it as big time-suck. Much like foursquare, it’s mostly appealing to geeks, gamers and early adopters. What sets Ingress apart is its well-designed gameplay, competitive structure and compelling secondary world & storyline. With some basic tweaks, it could relatively easily become an informational gusher for Google Places, which should make Yelp nervous and Foursquare incredibly so.

  1. Augmented Engagement: To date, there are very few examples of augmented or mediated reality games capable of garnering user participation and changing their real-world behavior. Geo-caching has been around for decades, but is a lone-wolf game with limited adoption. Foursquare was a breakout success, but appears to have stalled somewhat. Considering the level of participation required, cooperation required and sheer # of active players (who spend a lot of time coordinating with one another and traveling from portal to portal), Ingress, to my mind, is the most successful augmented reality game on Earth to date. This augmented engagement accomplishment is an important benchmark for a new class of technology that will likely power or catalyze new work and entertainment behaviors. Naturally it’s Google that has perceived this potential value and invested heavily. Mix in rapidly evolving mobile devices such as Google Glass, which Hanke and the Ingress team are already messing around with, and the feasible near-term future of engaged augmented gaming gets very interesting.

  1. Next-Gen Gamification: The idea that software-mediated games might serve as the interface for many future systems, ranging from social media to ordinary task management, caught fire in recent years. Made possible by powerful smartphones, growing bandwidth and better backend capabilities, the underlying Ingress platform represents the bleeding-edge of gamification. Some potent future capabilities can be extrapolated from a seemingly innocuous portion of the game that rewards players for submitting GPS tagged photos of interesting locations to become new portals. It’s no stretch to imagine that Google could apply the Ingress backbone to expand its Street View capabilities. Considering that Ingress players are now helping Google to quantify places of interest for free, imagine how these crowd-sourced mapping efforts will be amplified as cameras improve, bandwidth grows, new sensors are added to mobile phones (such as a miniaturized Matterport or Bublcam device), augmented reality gets real, gameplay gets better and financial and/or other participation incentives are increased.

  1. RL Social Interaction: A popular and valid criticism of social media and video games is that they fuel anti-social, glued-to-the-screen behavior. Contrasted with the likes of Facebook and Call of Duty, my time playing Ingress actually rewards me for moving about the real world and interacting with other players. My girlfriend and I enjoy playing the game together and find that it can increase our weekly physical exercise (which the game actually measures). It’s refreshing and illuminating to see technology making that possible. At the same time, the flipside of increased gas and bandwidth usage is a valid new age concern and interesting edge indicator.

  1. Media Component: Ingress utilizes a complex sci-fi storyline to structure its gameplay. Weekly video updates are released by in-game “reporters”. Factions work together in the context of this information to score more points and gain prestige. It’s hard to tell what sort of an impact this has had on engagement, but my guess is that it’s very important for super users and also helps retain general users. Seeing rich media storylines in video games and now in augmented reality games suggests that rich narrative structures and secondary worlds will play an important role in the ongoing roll-out of social media and the metaverse.

  1. Future of Advertising: Having worked on a pair of augmented reality startups (in3d, a 3d modeling and video company, and Swarmado, a content harvesting game for groups at events) I appreciate the importance of an underlying financial model that can support the software, server and human superstructure required by these ventures. By-and-large, advertising is the go-to strategy (though a few choice companies can bypass this if purchased for their sheer informational value or future potential). The holy grail of location-based advertising is generally considered to be any system that can meaningfully drive foot traffic to locations where its currently not. In this regard, Ingress could be a smashing success. Through partnerships with Jamba Juice and Zipcar, Niantic is actively exploring this option. I’ll be following new developments closely to see what strategies emerge and how closely they resemble or depart from those we hatched at in3d and Swarmado. :) There certainly are many potentially lucrative options for any system with a large user base and high engagement.

  1. Privacy Concerns:  Privacy concerns can be tinderboxes that cause unwelcome flare-ups for info-oriented companies like Google. Streetview has already drawn serious market backlashes in various regions such as Germany. As Google inevitably seeks to input more information about the world, the company carefully considers the social and political implications of its behavior. Though Hanke has stated his preference for start-up culture as the reason for Niantic Labs’ separation from parent Google, we should also consider the possibility that Page and Hanke both want to ensure the public and governments view the two as separate entities so as not to add to Google’s image as a great datavore. Ingress has already taken some heat for its info ingestion from bloggers and in forums, so that looks to have been a good call. As the project moves forward and the game evolves it could become a critical, perhaps revolutionary, tool for systematically gathering information about the world via swarms. It could become a mini-Google.

  1. Human Resources: 1) Imagine if Ingress, or a version of Ingress based on the same principles or backbone, established itself as a real-deal information generator. Then, 2) imagine if it became a formal part of the broader Google system. Such a gaming system could incrementally reward millions of player-workers for the data they input or even serve as a soft “play-in” layer for vetting future Google employees. Utilizing game-based systems for HR purposes could become increasingly effective and popular in the coming decades.

  1. The Google Factor: As listed above, there are many reasons for Google’s interest in a social, info-valuable augmented reality gaming system like Ingress. It’s even conceivable that such a company could pose a future threat to the search behemoth. To my mind, Google’s interest in Ingress reinforces its solid strategic vision of the near-future and that the company is making very smart bets on technologies that could both threaten or amplify its core potential. As a part of Google, Ingress could add billions to its market cap. Independent, or as part of a competitor, the quirky game might have become a major, central threat to Google.

Now that Ingress is moving out of Beta (it no longer requires an invite, you can get your Android download here) and onto iOS in 2014, you can confidently expect to catch many more smartphone-wielders to silently, or not so silently, playing the game all around you. Whether you find it to be a gigantic waste of time, gas and bandwidth, or a revolutionary new economic system, it’s an edge indicator that’s at least bound to garner hype and headlines for years to come. Seriously.


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