This week, Google has launched a new “alternate reality game” designed for Android phone users named Ingress. The story line is definitely unique and tailored to a tech-savvy urban audience, which is why it is ideal for Android owners.
In a nutshell, the purpose of the game is for users to explore the
physical world through the camera in their smart phone. Using augmented
reality, users collect virtual currency pieces as they walk along
pre-mapped paths, turning a leisurely stroll into a collection game
similar to Pac-Man. These collectible items can be “cashed in” at other
real-world points of interest, such as sculptures, libraries, and
public art murals.
Traditionally, alternate reality gaming serves as a way to promote an
upcoming product launch or supplement a Hollywood movie – so why is
Google getting into the alternate reality gaming scene? Our guess is
that Google is using this strategy as a way of collecting data through
it’s user base to improve their Maps product, and compete with Nokia’s turn-by-turn urban maps.
Players walk around footpaths and pedestrian routes that Google Maps
currently doesn’t cover well. The reward for the user is two-fold;
arbitrary points and advancement in the story, and the real world
experience of travelling and interacting with public areas that may have
been otherwise ignored. All the time the game client is reporting back
to Google their position, speed and the like, so Google gets to build a
massive database of popular pedestrian-accessible areas and common
routes between and around them. Since Geotagged photos and GPS tracking
are a major part of the user experience, this data will most certainly
be used to Google’s advantage.
If you’ve followed Google’s moves over the years, you know that they
have had massive success with using free “pointless” services to
optimize their flagship products. For several years, Google operated a 411-style directory assistance
service totally free to all users. This allowed Google millions of
samples of human voices, dialects, accents, and other useful data that
went into Voice Commands for Android and voicemail transcription for
You may also remember Google’s purchase of ReCAPTCHA
in 2009. The reason behind this was to once again use user-generated
input and data into optimizing a character recognition system which was
later tweaked and optimized for the Google Books project.
Some privacy advocates might take issue with the “spying” nature of
Ingress, but if past successes show anything, it’s that Google is
MASTERFUL at mining and compiling anonymous data from willing
participants, and in the end it leads to better and more useful products
for the rest of the world.