Ingress and the battle for LBS control

29 Jan 2013

The battle for the leader of location as a platform has made a major leap forward with Google Niantic Labs at the helm. I am, of course, talking about Ingress, the massive multiplayer online role playing augmented reality game that is taking the world by storm.

At its heart, Ingress is an augmented reality game where two factions, the Enlightened and the Resistance, battle for control of exotic matter (XM) and portals to create control fields to hack in the minds of the public. Portals are usually statues and public sculptures that emit XM.

A player walks around in the real world (yes, outside, under the sun in open air) and can hack a portal if he is standing within 40m of the target to gain items and, if it is an enemy portal, experience points (AP) to level up. These items can be used to gain control of portals and create links and control fields, or be used to destroy the other side’s links and fields.

The beauty is that if a public work of art is not already a portal, it can be submitted via the Ingress app to make it into a portal.

In two days, I have discovered so many statues, plaques, stones and all sorts of interesting looking things about the city I live in that I had never known of before, and I have submitted quite a few pictures that are worthy of being an XM portal that are not currently on the map.

On a side note, I don’t think I have ever cycled so much or walked so much in my life as I have done in the past two days. My legs are aching, my back is in pain and my bicycle suffering from all the abuse (many portals are in parks, off the beaten path, on roads with shards of glass and nails).

For those who are wondering, yes, a bicycle is the ultimate hack to get ahead in Ingress, but do make sure you have hard-core puncture protection tyres fitted. I made it to 26,000 AP, or just 4,000 short of level 3 in two days before I got my third puncture.

The battle for location as a platform has such players such as FourSquare, which allows check-ins and mayorships to those who check-in to a place often. Then there was Gowalla, now part of Facebook, which is more or less a direct competitor. The idea was to be there and tell your friends you were there, leave tips for others and - more recently - allow the corporate world to enter as sponsors to fuel the entire ecosystem.

The level of incentives is quite shocking to those used to a token 3% or 5% discount. In the UK, checking in at certain Shell petrol stations and paying with American Express (by linking the Amex card to FourSquare) will get you a £15 ($24) rebate on your next statement, serious money by any measure.

The map fiasco at Apple was in one sense all about location as a platform and Apple’s obsession with controlling every aspect of its stack, from CPU design to form factor to the user experience. Why, then, would the Church of Jobs want to have to depend on Google Maps as the basis of any endeavour in this field? In true Apple fashion, it decided it did not and replaced Google Maps with the half-baked debacle we all know of.

Nokia bought Navteq for its maps, and the navigation on its Symbian phones has long been very usable and accurate. The way it was hand-crafted at all major intersections was nice when driving in the countries it covered, but ultimately would prove unscalable.

And now we have Google’s Niantic project and Ingress.

In creating this game, Google’s Niantic labs has created an army - or rather two competing armies - intent on finding anything interesting all across the globe, giving that information to Google to turn into portals that can be fought over in the virtual world. Mining that data in the real world could prove to be a treasure trove, not just for loyalty programs, but for understanding human behaviour.

I see a group of hardcore players fighting in the city center and another quite separate group in a university, but with little interaction between the two circles. The way control fields are created in the game also mirrors society at large - a few of the cities I have browsed seem to have the Resistance in the city center, with the Enlightened controlling huge swathes of empty land outside the cities. Conservative people have time and cars to drive and hack into remote portals, while city workers identify themselves with the status quo and concentrate their efforts in city centers.

The buzz of Ingress in social media must be leaving FourSquare shivering in its boots and Apple scratching its head and wondering why it didn’t think of that rather than roll out that abysmal map app.

Already Google Niantic has released an app called Field Trip, an app that rings when it finds something interesting nearby, not unlike FourSquare’s explore feature. In other words it is just like an Ingress scanner app without the game element and with a bit more contextual information added. While Field Trip is limited in the number of countries it supports and it does not seem to use Ingress crowdsourced information as of yet, the possibility is there.

The battle for the brave new world is being fought in a virtual world as we speak. Time to ask for an invitation (the game is still in closed beta) and join the Enlightened in crushing those pesky old-world refusniks.

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