When Google launched its new worldwide alternative reality game earlier this month, the web lit up with widespread questions. The game, called Ingress, allows users to move through the physical world with their Android devices, collecting pockets of energy in various locations that they can then use to complete virtual quests. It was an interesting idea, but on the surface appeared to not make any significant contributions to the company’s bottom line. Why would Google, which has $217.59 billion market cap, allocate time and resources to a free Android game?
Technology Review called it “augmented reality’s first killer app.” AllThingsD reported that because the game incorporates real stores and businesses into its plotline, it’s a natural next-level venue for advertisers–Zipcar, Jamba Juice and Chrome apparel have already all signs on to host ads on Ingress.
PandoDaily, meanwhile, pointed out the potential privacy violations that could occur when a game constantly requires users to record their GPS location:
Google has created an elaborate ruse to convince (possibly hundreds of) millions of people to share far more location and behavior data with the company than has ever been the case before.
And if there’s one thing Google can’t get enough of it’s data. The company made its fortunes by collecting more data (and better structuring and analyzing it into advertising opportunities) than any company in the world. Search history. Email correspondence. Maps usage. Content purchase and consumption. Google’s been watching. And it’s made billions off what it’s learned.
But there’s another thing Ingress could do: Google could have its users help collect mapping data. (The company hasn’t confirmed or denied this.) When playing Ingress, users are asked to explore walking trails, bike paths and other areas that haven’t necessarily been documented by Google’s StreetView cars. The geo data, photos and video recorded by game players is crucial in order for Google to successfully flesh out its walking maps. Knowing that even a company of its scale doesn’t have the resources to map all walking paths across the world, Google has essentially convinced users to help them do their jobs by gamifying data collection.
If this tactic doesn’t sound familiar, it should. Back in 2007, Google launched the GOOG-411 service, a free, voice-activated local search tool. Like Ingress, it seemed like a strange move at first: why would Google foot the bill for a Yellowpages-type service? But a few months after GOOG-411′s launch, then-VP of search products Marissa Mayer explained just why Google had decided to launch the service. GOOG-411 was collecting spoken syllables in order to build out its speech recognition tool, now employed widely across Android devices. But a few months after GOOG-411′s launch, Marissa Mayer, then-VP of search products, explained that GOOG-411 was collecting spoken syllables in order to build out its speech recognition tool, now employed widely across Android devices.
As Ms. Mayer told Infoworld in an interview in 2007:
You may have heard about our [directory assistance] 1-800-GOOG-411 service. Whether or not free-411 is a profitable business unto itself is yet to be seen. I myself am somewhat skeptical. The reason we really did it is because we need to build a great speech-to-text model … that we can use for all kinds of different things, including video search.
The speech recognition experts that we have say: If you want us to build a really robust speech model, we need a lot of phonemes, which is a syllable as spoken by a particular voice with a particular intonation. So we need a lot of people talking, saying things so that we can ultimately train off of that. … So 1-800-GOOG-411 is about that: Getting a bunch of different speech samples so that when you call up or we’re trying to get the voice out of video, we can do it with high accuracy.
Ingress appears to be yet another version of this masked data collection strategy. By asking users to create new Portals, for example, Google could tap into a database of geo-tagged photos without ever having to head to the remote location themselves. After all, mapping the wilderness takes a fair amount of legwork. “You’ve seen our cars, trikes, snowmobiles and trolleys—but wheels only get you so far,” the company wrote back in June about its wilderness trekking camera. “There’s a whole wilderness out there that is only accessible by foot.”
Ingress creator John Hanke did not respond to a request for comment.