Google enters augmented reality with new Ingress game

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Smartphones have sent the video games industry into overdrive. The days of forking out for a bespoke games console are coming to an end: the convenience and unisex appeal of app gaming, via smartphones, has seen titles like Angry Birds become a global staple for fun-seeking fingers and thumbs. Now Google’s getting in on the game: its augmented reality project, Ingress, combines the best bits of geocaching, logging into FourSquare, orienteering and capture the flag. Is this truly a Google game, though, or just another way for the search giant to gather our data? Here, ClickThrough Marketing copywriter Martin Boonham decides whether to join the Resistance or the Enlightened

With the handheld games market booming, it’s no surprise that Internet giant Google wants in on the act. Smartphones have turned pockets into arcades: with an array of addictive apps available, from Rovio’s incredibly successful Angry Birds, to Z, the real-time strategy game from Speedball creators the Bitmap Brothers.

Now Google has launched its own app-based game, Ingress: and it requires people to get out and about to play it. But is Ingress a genuine attempt from Google to provide something fun for free?  Or, as with the Google Maps wi-fi furore, is there a hidden benefit here for the search engine, such as incredible amounts of data collection?

There’s no doubt that Ingress has the potential to help Google. Players could contribute to its Maps service, generate image content of local landmarks and streets, or even use geolocation to help Google track popular pedestrian routes. Ingress also offers advertising opportunities: as it takes place in the real world, real world businesses could be offered ad spots, based on player locations.

Frankly, the possibilities are endless.

Google can even claim to have created a video game which inherently requires people to exercise: like the Wii before it, Ingress is doing its bit to trounce the sedentary reputation of the gaming lifestyle.

But what exactly is Ingress? How do you play? And is there an ulterior motive behind it, or is data collection just part and parcel of the web-connected world now?

Ingress seems to represent the next step in the gaming evolution: with augmented reality blurring the lines between real places and digital fantasy.

The gaming evolution has been rapid. From humble beginnings – the clunky, grainy pixels of Donkey Kong and PacMan - video game launches are now an entertainment event in their own right. Call of Duty plays like a Hollywood action film; every Hollywood action film now has a spin-off game; World of Warcraft has a player base of some 13 million people and is endorsed by Mr T; StarCraft has its own TV channel in Korea.

Now, with flashy graphics displayed over the real-world, via an app, have we reached the final frontier of video game immersion?

The man at helm of Project Niantic seems to think so.

Niantic created Ingress with Google, and is run by John Hanke, CEO of the company which worked on the project later known as Google Earth, after Google bought them out in 2004. He was also the lead on Google Maps and StreetView.

The idea is to take the social, strategic and team-working principles of popular games and enable gamers to personally take part in the ‘battle’, on the ground.

Ingress lets players choose between two warring groups:  The Resistance, or The Enlightened, the former battling against the latter’s plans to control the populace’s minds with a strange new form of energy.

The user interface graphics are somewhat stunted compared to the Skyrims of the world, but are nevertheless reminiscent of the dystopian visions of a digital future peddled in the 80s, a la Tron. Graphics aren’t everything though, as consoles like the Nintendo Wii have proved.

Using their mobile device, players can take part in a strategic battle for territory in their own neighbourhood: whether it be the local library down the road or maybe the humongous shopping centre in town, where hordes of mindless zombies are ambling around staring into their handsets…

On second thoughts that’s just a typical Saturday.

What Ingress adds is a point. For now, it promises to liven up those dreary weekend shopping trips, and the novelty of battling for landmarks like the Bull Ring will certainly be a massive draw (much like the Mayorship feature in location check-in service FourSquare).

In typical role playing game (RPG) fashion, individual players also earn experience points, or Exotic Matter (XM) in the Ingress game world.

Gamers are restricted to their immediate surroundings (if you live in Surrey, you’re not going to be able to control a portal in New York), but Ingress will also include a web client to provide gamers with a wider picture of the territorial battle, across not only their local area, but the entire nation, or even the globe.

The idea is to control as many portals and areas as possible for your faction: but obviously, your enemies have the chance to wrestle control back whilst you sleep, or, say, go to work.

All that makes for an easy to play, social game, with all the addictive qualities which have made StarCraft and Call of Duty so massively popular.

And business-wise, the move in to mobile gaming is a sensible one for Google.

‘Casual gamers’ – and not the armchair generals - are the current big business for gaming: and Ingress is bound to attract thousands of players who’d otherwise shirk at the idea of playing “video games”.

So, where’s the catch? Creating a video game costs money: especially if it’s a forerunner of new technology, like augmented reality. Are Ingress players, ironically, just pawns in Google’s own game of world domination?

There’s no doubt that Ingress provides a lot of possibilities for data collection. And like with Google Maps, Ingress also provides Google with lots of new ways to drive revenue.

Say you have to visit a portal in town, which happens to be near a certain fast-food chain or coffee franchise: it seems highly likely that Google could sell highly-targeted local advertising to these businesses, to allow them to get in front of Ingress players in that area.

Ingress also gives Google the ability to track your route: how do players get to portal X from portal Y? What streets do they take? What shops are there? Is there a bus?

Once there, players may be encouraged to log their location, or even take pictures of landmarks (which may then be used in Google Maps?).

Ingress only launched in November, so it’s a relative baby.

Only time will tell whether Google is innocently chancing its arm in the video games market, or trying to create a fun and entertaining way to collect even more data about us.

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