I push through the front doors of the US Post Office, my eyes still glued to my Ingress exotic matter (XM) scanner. I’m so going to hack this portal! “Target Acquired,” my cell phone chirped and loud enough for a few other patrons to notice. Oh crap, I may have just made a poor life decision, I thought as I glanced around the federal building.

Ingress is a new augmented reality game created by Google’s Niantic Labs. Imagine a cross between Pac Man, Foursquare, Geocaching, and Capture the Flag all rolled into one app on your phone. You run around town looking at a Google Map-like view gathering energy so that you can capture and defend geographically-distributed portals against an enemy faction.

Luckily, I walked away from my first big Ingress encounter unscathed, unfrisked, and undetained. But, I’m now picturing very different scenarios in the near future with people suspiciously circling buildings, eyes glued to their phones that occasionally make scary, threatening, futuristic sounds. Just ask the Mooninites or that student wearing art composed of exposed electronics, but it doesn’t seem to take much to freak people out these days.

MooniniteMooninite device that people freaked out about: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2007_Boston_bomb_scare . Image from Wikipedia.

The game has placed portals on a number of sites that the broader citizen base may not appreciate seeing trampled including federal buildings, libraries, and even some public middle school grounds. Fire departments also appear to be a very popular location for portals. One fire department with a portal I investigated could not be hacked without driving or walking up into their parking lot, potentially blocking their garage. I took a moment to talk with the on-duty firefighter at the station to get his take on the game and to see if anyone had notified them that their station would now be a part of some geeky capture the flag game. Nope. He hadn’t heard of it and while he sounded intrigued by the concept he did not like the idea of increased traffic pulling into their parking lot. As a local homeowner, I have to agree.

The game is still in beta and perhaps one goal is to identify some of these concerns before unleashing the nerd hordes. Suspected terrorist and arsonist concerns aside, this has been a pretty entertaining game. I’ve hoped for an augmented reality game like this for awhile and I think the folks at Niantic Labs have done a great job. It’s even provided enough motivation for me to get a little extra exercise in as I take walking breaks to hack and recharge portals. I don’t know how the game dynamics will change or scale once more people join the action, but it definitely has my attention for the time being.

Just think twice if Google tells you to visit the local fire department at night and lets revisit portal placement. Make good life choices.

 

Ingress Map of DurhamSnapshot of Ingress activity in Durham (Nov 2012)