THE BLOG
02/19/2013 08:02 pm ET | Updated Apr 21, 2013

Mobile Tech (and Society) on the Verge of Another Giant Leap: Ingress

The Shapers are coming. We can't know their intentions for sure, but humans are already taking sides. Those who call themselves Enlightened (because the Shapers have promised to enlighten us), are doing everything they can to help them enter our world through portals that are invisible to the naked eye. Those who call themselves the Resistance are, well, you know.

This sci-fi plot is the basic premise of the new (not yet public) mobile game Ingress, created by Niantic Labs, a subdivision of Google. There's much more to the story, including conspiracies, an inexplicable form of energy (exotic matter), mind control... Niantic called in some Hollywood writers to bring this game to life, and they certainly did the job.

Although Ingress takes gaming to a whole new level (you have to leave the house, for one), this article is more about how the kind of technology used for Ingress, and our way of interacting with this tech and our world, is going to change everything about gaming and real life.

First things first. I'm not a gamer -- at all -- so you can be assured that I'm not writing this from an evangelist's point of view. I'm writing this as someone whose primary interest in tech is how it's changing people and society. And this is big. So do me a favor and put away all your assumptions about video games for just a moment and look at the bigger picture.

A bit on the tech and game play, so you can see where I'm going. The game, played on an Android phone, uses augmented reality and GPS data, which enable players to see, on their screens, the invisible portals and other virtual structures and artifacts "overlaid" on our real world (as seen through the phone's camera lens). Players can also see other nearby players if they've made their location public. Players are "agents" who try to take territory and assets from the other side. Even though the game is in "closed beta" (a testing period during which you need an invite code to play), it's already a global phenomenon.

Cowgirl App! met for an hour last week with some members of the Niantic/Google team and some expert players in a Google Hangout on Air (a streamed live show) to discuss the game, what was behind it, and where it was going (yes, an iPhone version is planned). Here are some of the things I took away from the hangout.

Community: Local Ingress communities, like the Berlin Ingress Community, are springing up around the game all over the world. Members are gathering online and in the "real" world to share stories and strategies. Brandon Badger, Ingress Product Manager at Niantic, said that one of the goals behind the game had indeed been to get people off of their couches and more in touch with and involved in their communities. To achieve this, they placed the portals all over the world at places of cultural or historical interest (Notre Dame in Paris, for example). There are fewer portals in some places than others, so players can also suggest portal locations by submitting a photo and GPS data through the game. This encourages people to take pride in their communities and see them through fresh and curious eyes.

Family: Since the show, I've seen many players requesting invites for family members (mostly guys whose wives/girlfriends and/or kids are clamoring to play). Quality time, fresh air, bonding over shared goals, cooperation, education... All sounds good to me.

Health: Two of our guests on the show, Linda and Valerie, both professionals in their 40s, had reached Level 8, the highest skill level at this point. They told us they'd each lost 20 pounds since they started playing in November of 2012. Valerie had another stat to add to that: she'd walked over 212 miles playing the game.

Team-building: Ingress players can achieve more if they're playing in groups (group play also reduces the risk of falling into a lake in the dark, which happened to the friend of one of our guests). At a conference where she was speaking, Linda was approached by some corporate executives who wanted to discuss using the game for employee team-building. Not exactly your father's company picnic, right?

Altruism: It seems like this game can bring out the best in people. Valerie makes sure to spend extra time depositing game assets that lower-level players can retrieve to help them "level up," and she and other high-level players have reserved a square in Glasgow for new players; that is, they keep the portals and elements at an accessible level for the newbies. Linda told us she was out playing, just about to reach her Level 8, and one of her fellow players actually ventured out at 1:00 in the morning, in the Michigan winter, just to bring her some coffee.

Now, if you take the Ingress technology and concept and remove the game, you can see the educational and commercial potential of the model. In fact, Niantic and Google are already testing commercial uses, placing retrievable game elements in stores.

Niantic, which is all about creating "adventures on foot," does plan to open up its platform so that others can build games (and more, surely) using it. What fun Christmas shopping would be if local chambers of commerce, nonprofits and tourism bureaus worked together to create augmented reality scavenger hunts for deals and coupons that you could retrieve by stopping at different holiday displays, as well as cultural and community-focused events...

And the educational potential is thrilling. When I was a little kid, I went on the school field trip to the museum with a list of questions (on paper) that had to be answered by the end of the day. But it shouldn't be too long before kids on field trips are running around museums pointing devices at the T. rex skeleton and getting interactive content and answers through an augmented reality app...

This won't be the last you hear of Ingress... For more on the topic of augmented reality and mobile tech, I recommend the excellent article, "The Impending Social Consequences of Augmented Reality" on Mashable.