Ingress is an online, augmented reality game in which the players use an app on their phone to interact with the real world. It was created by Niantic Labs, an internal startup of Google, for Android devices. Each player of the game is a member of one of two teams, The Resistance (blue) or The Enlightened (green). Much like Facebook or Foursquare have places in which you can "check-in", Ingress has real world locations called ”portals” that you can interact with by "hacking".
Initially the world was seeded with a large number of portals, locations in the real world that are usually landmarks such as sculptures, graffiti walls, memorials etc. New portals can be created by players of the game by taking a photo of a new location and submitting it for approval. Once approved, a portal can be owned by a player and therefore their team. If a portal is owned by an opposing team, a player can hack the portal to reduce its life, and once it has been hacked to the point of zero life and is destroyed, it can be recaptured and owned by any team.
Most people that I have spoken to, and most articles that I have read online, never really point to Ingress as being anything more than another augmented reality game. I disagree with this. As this is an quasi-internal project of Google, I cannot see them sponsoring, deploying and maintaining such a large scale program purely for fun without some long term benefit to themselves.
One of the best tech lecture videos that I have ever seen was "Human Computation" by Luis von Ahn, the creator of CAPTCHA and the new version reCAPTCHA and is, ironically, now an employee at Google and a product of Google. I highly recommend watching this video to understand the concept fully, but I will try to summarise it here.
When a person goes to a website and fills out a form, they are often presented with a difficult to read word that has been deformed and often has squiggly lines or extra dots on it. These images are inserted on forms to prevent computer bots from automatically filling in the forms and signing up for new accounts. These images are difficult for software bots to understand but can be read and interpreted by humans.
In the process of digitising books or newspapers, scanned images of the pages are input into a program and the words on the page are stored, and thus the content of the book is digitised. Sometimes when a page is scanned, a word on the page cannot be correctly read by the program. Perhaps the newspaper is old and the page has yellowed, or the ink in the book has smudged and deteriorated over time. Although the computer algorithm cannot interpret the word, these unknown words can quite often still be recognised by humans.
Where the genius of reCAPTCHA comes in is that it takes these unreadable words from the book digitising algorithm and displays them on a web form. These words are, by definition, unreadable by computers and therefore obviously ideally suited for the use of blocking bots from filling in forms. If an unknown word is presented on 100 different forms to 100 different people, and a large percentage of these people enter that the word reads the same thing, then there is a high probability that that word has now been deciphered. This word is fed back into the book program and another word within the book has be successfully digitised.
The reCAPTCHA approach is an example of human computation and a distribution of tasks. If the people that are reading filling out the forms and deciphering the images were presented with an entire newspaper and asked to digitise it, most likely they wouldn't do it as they see it as a boring and reward less task. However, when the task is divided into just a single word, and there is an incentive of being able to access a webpage, they happily do this. If in the few seconds that it takes for a person to read a word and input it into a form is multiplied millions of times across millions of users on millions of web forms, this distribution and division of tasks turns previously unknown data and images into useful information.
Ingress and Human Computation
My theory about the purpose of Ingress is to turn the players of the game into data miners for Google. The location of portals within the game as nondescript locations such as monuments, interesting graffit walls, artworks, or other artefacts that people would find interesting. The majority of these locations are not businesses, governmental buildings, or other places that are easily documented in a phone book or other list. Google has already mined the phone books and business directories of the world and input these locations into Google maps. What Google cannot easily do is define where local art pieces on graffiti walls are on their map or define a local government commission statue.
By creating a game in which people drive around their local communities to take photos of interesting artefacts to define as ports, Google is distrusting the process of gathering previously unknown data and locations of the word and getting the gamers to define it as useful information. The players of Ingress are no different to the people filling of the forms for reCAPTCHA.
Ingress, like Facebook or many of Googles other products, is free to use. It is free because we are the product that they are selling. I have absolutely no issue with this and accept that I am paying for use of these products with my time or data. I use these products in my every day life and I think it is a very clever idea to distribute hard tasks that a computer cannot do to people in a manner that fun and interesting to them.
The added benefit in this situation is the the information provided by the players of Ingress may be translated into more accurate and useful maps for Google Maps. I have absolutely no evidence to substantiate the idea that Ingress is used to map the non-documented world, it is just a theory that I have. However, if Google isn't using the vast amount of data generated by Ingress players to add interesting locations to Google Maps to make it more complete, they should be!