Through the Looking Glass with Google’s Alternate Reality Game Ingress

The concept of the Alternate Reality Game (or ARG) was popularized across gamer culture with the “I Love Bees” viral marketing campaign by Microsoft that was meant to raise hype for Halo 2 in 2004. It turned what would generally be called a clue-based scavenger hunt into a national and Internet-related phenomenon. Nowadays, the standard ARG feels like an Internet-based live action role play (or LARP) that involves the deductive thinking and problem solving with large numbers of people. In short, contests that give a group of people a chance to play their own Sherlock Holmes game versus a well planned puzzle.

John Hanke, a researcher at Google, has taken this idea to the next level by adding augmented reality to alternate reality with Ingress. The game is available right now as a closed beta—which means you must sign up and be accepted to play—for those who haven’t played here’s an idea of what to expect.

Ingress includes a mobile app that uses data and engineering from Google Earth in order to connect real world activity with the virtual world of the game, enabling players to act together and affect the game environment as they move through the real world. Players can use their mobile phones to walk to a physical location and then “capture” that place for their team, upon capture players can then link that location together with another nearby location—three locations connected forms a “control field.”

These portals exist exclusively in public places (so players won’t be spelunking or trespassing) and are usually public pieces of artwork, public corners, parks, and locations that people already gather. The idea that “public sculptures” are part of some global conspiracy is central to the game’s narrative. As a result, it’s not unlikely that players might actually run into one another while going out to capture or maintain their portals.

There are two factions players can join the Enlightenment or the Resistance. The portals and their current status show up on maps visible in the mobile app to give players an idea of where they need to go in order to continue the game and keep their faction on top.

In many ways, it’s like a giant game of mobile-phone Go that involves a capture-the-flag component. Portals must be maintained by players visiting that location again to upkeep it (and to protect it from capture by another faction.)

Where do we go from here?

Alternate reality games and augmented reality fit together extremely well, and Ingress looks like a game that would build directly into Google Glass without a second thought. In fact, although Ingress only uses Google Earth and GPS positioning to play the game currently, it would be an even more impressive leap to start using the camera on smartphones to provide augmented reality interfaces for the capture of portals.

Currently, players simply play a minigame when they’re in the vicinity of a target (mostly pressing a few buttons) to capture or maintain a portal. With a camera a game innovator could make it much more interesting up to and including adding messages in the game reality for other players to see, leave behind clues, or even leave traps.

Once the camera is in play, Google Glass becomes an obvious technology to innovate towards. Since then people wearing the product would be able to see messages, visualize the ley lines between the portals (allowing them to find them more quickly without staring down at a phone), and even interact with other players within the game on a level above-and-beyond a 2D map showing control fields and points.

In fact, we’ve seen researchers use alternate reality and augmented reality gaming already to increase the quality of photographs of popular monuments at McCormick School of Engineering—by putting a ghost-photo game into smartphones, they were able to capture better data (and images) about the world by letting players just snap photos of “virtual” ghosts. Google could foreseeably use Ingress to increase mapping accuracy and images for Google Earth in the same way.

Now I just need to wait for my Google Glass to show up in the mail.

About Kyt Dotson

Technology and civilization walk hand in hand and civilization is nothing without the skin of society, brushing up against itself, speaking strange nothings across dimly lit avenues and computer screens. If we're going to understand ourselves in this digital era, it will be through watching the adoption of technology by people to express themselves as people. I am an anthropologist and an author of science fiction and fantasy--and with my technology, I hope to open up new and exciting worlds that will not just enlighten the humanity of my friends and fans but also educate and enhance the expression of their own personhood. Find more of my work on Google+; send tips to @kytsune.