Ingress: Dangers and First Impressions

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.

Mooninite device that people freaked out about: . 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 Activity
Snapshot of Ingress activity in Durham (Nov 2012)

Python Hack Night #3

We had a good turn out for TriZPUG’s third Python Hack Night tonight. All in all, nine local pythonistas showed up at MetaMetrics in Durham and dug right in. There was good conversation and it seems like progress was made on most fronts. We had a wide range of projects including: personal websites, a scrum workflow tool, a computational teaching problem, a game project, a nose plugin, a Django-based charting framework, and more. We even had an impromptu game AI-building competition emerge.

I was pleased with the results and would love to see one at least once a month. Let’s see what August brings.

ALT Summit Debrief

The North Carolina Advanced Learning Technologies Association (NC ALTA) did a great job organizing the first Advanced Learning Technologies (ALT) Summit, which aimed to bring industry and though leaders together to discuss the state and future of advanced learning technologies. Some time has passed now, but I wanted to mention the summit and some of the highlights.

Something Big is a Brewing

I think NC ALTA has really started a powerful ball rolling by creating a common focus on which a number of industries and research disciplines are beginning to converge. To demonstrate this let me list areas represented by the some of the people I encountered at the conference:

  • Game engine developers
  • Serious game developers
  • Developers of virtual worlds including frameworks like Second Life or Croquet. This also includes the corporate facet aimed at facilitating remote work and collaboration via a virtualized workplace.
  • Researchers dealing with immersive visualizations and virtual experiences. This includes some of the cool immersive environments hosted by RENCI.
  • Second (or third?) generation of e-learning companies and their interest in assessment, monitoring, and integration into larger learning management systems.
  • Educators interested in getting these technologies out in the schools and in the hands of students. As well as educators interested in seeing proper learning theory incorporated into program design.

Now imagine the intersection of all (or some) of these groups.

Parallel Tinkering and Research

I attended one birds-of-a-feather discussion that dealt with educational games and simulations in higher ed. I was surprised at the number of professors and students who have already begun building, deploying, and testing their educational games within their universities. Some folks met up after the round table and shared war stories, common hang-ups, and I think even identified some future collaborations. Exciting stuff!

One thing that came up a number of times during that session was the fact that we did have a number of independent development efforts going on. Essentially, each project required the development of a slew of management frameworks, authentication, integration with LMSs, middleware, etc. Everyone needed these same components and so everyone wrote their own.

Libby Evans of UNC and several others identified the need for some common, modular solutions to these problems. Establishing a framework of common solutions would allow researchers to focus on the interesting problems and it would encourage compatibility and collaboration. So it seems like a nice next step would be to look at the number of developed solutions and start distilling out some design patterns.

The Efficacy of Games in Education

Do games actually work in education? can they be used as a tool to teach or explore? I am particularly interested in this topic and have begun looking at this in terms of math games. Marrilea Mayo of the Kauffman Foundation was kind enough to share a tremendous amount of her own findings from reviewing the disparate literature.

Many of us have heard a number of positive anecdotal (or underpowered, small n) successes, positive pilots, but few full-blown psychometric studies on the efficacy of games in learning. In fact, I have not found any commercially available shrink-wrapped math games with associated efficacy studies. I have seen products claiming they are “scientifically-based”, because the product is designed around a number of accepted practices not that their actual efficacies were tested.

While I have personally been focused on the efficacy in K-12 and higher ed, there were also a number of discussions dealing with the same concepts in corporate space. How do we measure the success of our corporate training programs? ROI? So, it seems like efficacy and the ability to measure and monitor success is a common theme and something we need to start incorporating into our designs. Luckily, I think this is solvable once we begin embedding the means to track psychometrically-valid metrics.

So, I walked away from the ALT Summit pretty excited that we had begun a conversation that I think will develop into something revolutionary down the road. I encourage you to keep tuned in and check out NC ALTA.