Google’s Ingress turns cities into virtual scavenger hunts

Image via Google
Image via Google

They Live meets scavenger hunt.

That’s the best way I can describe Google’s augmented reality game, Ingress, an app that will have you running around your city in search of energy portals that could mean the difference between human enlightenment and the human race becoming slaves to some mysterious new force in the universe.

I started playing the game this weekend while on vacation in Las Vegas, and it seriously started making me see The Venetian in a whole new light. While thousands of people around me were yelling and screaming about Big Papi’s game-tying grand slam (and the millions of dollars that changed hands because of it), I was plugged in to the Ingress app, looking for these mysterious portals that suddenly popped up on my phone and appeared (at least, on my phone’s map), all throughout the hotel and casino. So there I was, following my own type of treasure map while everyone else around me was playing for real loot, but in my eyes, I was the one having the most fun.

The game is currently still in beta, but there are portals for you to find all across the world, all you need to do is open the app to find them. At one point on Sunday, I was walking through the Venetian trying to track down a portal, but according to my map, I kept walking past it. That’s when I realized the object I was looking for wasn’t in front of me, it was above me. I click on the object on my phone, and the portal was near the Venetian Bell outside the hotel. I simply walked outside, got close enough to the portal, then hit the hack button on my phone in attempts to claim the area for the resistance.

And that’s what Ingress is all about. It’s like only the people who are playing the game know the real truth about the world they’re living in, and they basically follow their map to key points throughout the city to capture portals, and maybe even meet other players throughout the journey.

Image via Google
Image via Google

Ingress is being developed by Google’s Niantic Labs, with designers behind Google Maps and Google Earth spearheading the project. “We started last November, and we have over one million downloads and over 100,000 active users so far from all walks of life,” says Brandon Badger, Ingress’ product manager, as he sits down with me to talk about the game. “Some people are hardcore gamers, but we also have people who have never played video games before, so it has been fun to see how this social experiment is playing out. When you think about the term ‘social game,’ you immediately think about games on Facebook, but in our game, we’re seeing people get together for a beer afterwards. In our game, we’re finding people who are actually making real-world friends.

“We weren’t sure how this would develop when we were designing the game. We knew people were going to be moving around in the real world, but we didn’t know if they would be apprehensive or fearful about meeting other players. It has turned out that that’s been the best aspect of the game so far, and the thing people have liked the most.”

So much so, in fact, that Google held events for its players in Vancouver, Bangkok, Santa Fe, Montreal, Los Angeles and San Jose this past weekend in order to get more of its gamers together, working as teams in their game of local exploration (and global dominance).

“We wanted to get people off of the couch, and promote better, healthy living by getting people up and moving around in order to play the game,” says Badger. “The other idea was that while a lot of technology can help us connect with others, a lot of it can be isolating. You have your 2,000 Facebook friends, but how many of them do you actually go meet up with? Or you’re waiting at the bus stop and all you see is people with their heads down staring at their phones. We’re not talking to anyone in real life.

“So we knew we wanted to do something with GeoData because of our Maps background, but we wanted to look at doing something in a whole new genre of gaming. We didn’t want to just try and catch up with what was already happening in gaming, we wanted to do something new. And if you look at gaming, every couple of years, you have these huge technological leaps, whether it’s new console technology or the Wii remote or smartphones, and these devices are all used to create new leaders in the industry and new types of gaming experiences. We saw what was coming down the pipeline — Google Glass and the Samsung smart watch — and we all grew up having Terminator in our heads with the virtual display and targeting system, or James Bond with his gadgets, and there is this fantasy of living out this lifestyle in the real world.”

What Google developed from this fantasy is a massively multiplayer augmented reality game, where you are fighting for the fate of mankind, not from your couch, but running around the streets of your hometown (or even a Vegas casino). The idea is that there is an exotic matter, this super powerful energy source that scientists just discovered, with one faction of world seeing this as something that can improve humanity, while the other half sees the energy as something that is changing people in uncertain ways and that maybe it’s being used by some other force from some other dimension to change who we are. As an agent, it’s up to you to pick a side and battle over key geographical points throughout your city.

“Your smartphone lifts the veil from your eyes,” explains Badger. “All the people don’t know what’s really happening around them, but with your smartphone, you’re able to see the truth that’s right beneath the covers. Everyone is off running errands while you’re saving them, and they don’t even know it.

“It’s this fun, immersive experience, and the great thing is, it weaves into real life. So you might need to stop by the post office, and now you can hack a portal while you’re there or deploy some defenses around the post office. Or maybe when you drop off your kids at school, you meet up with another secret agent who just happens to be another parent. Or maybe for your lunch break at work, you go out and try to hack a portal around your office, so this is something you can do throughout your day. We basically built the game around visiting and discovering public art throughout your area. The game fiction is that these art installations channel this exotic matter in certain ways, and a nice side effect of this is, we really wanted people to see the world around them with new eyes. So you might walk the same way to work everyday, passing by some interesting murals and statues that you just never look up to see, but one of the interesting things we’ve found is that within Ingress, it will tell you the sculpture is 20 meters to your right, so you’ll start looking around, and then you might look up and it’s up on the building. You might have walked by that same sculpture or statue for five years and never saw it before, so it’s great to give people a new appreciation for art.”

Not to mention, something to do in Vegas that might have security looking at you sideways, even if you’re too busy looking up for that portal by the fountains.