Google’s Ingress turns cities into virtual scavenger hunts

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

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).