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Google Ingress: How to save the world with your Android phone

Google's new Ingress augmented reality game is rough around the edges, but still highly absorbing

By , Network World
December 04, 2012 11:57 AM ET

Network World -

If you'd been hanging around Kendall Square in Cambridge this weekend, you might have seen a brave freedom fighter lurking near MIT, battling nefarious paranormal forces, windchill and GPS problems. That was me.

According to the developers of Google's new augmented reality game, Ingress, there were several invisible portals present near that august establishment of higher education, linked together in order to form a field designed to assist in the mind control of innocent civilians. As a member of the Resistance faction, it's my job to disrupt these fields (placed there by players in the opposing Enlightened faction) and create some of our own, which protect people from the pernicious influence of the opposition. You're welcome.

So, armed with my old Nexus S, I made the rounds, attempting to "hack" portals belonging to the Enlightened. Like the game itself, I met with mixed success.

MORE ANDROID: Apple iOS vs. Google Android: It comes down to security

Augmented reality is a high-flown description of a relatively simple concept -- thanks to the growing ubiquity of location-aware smartphones, advertisers and game developers can now offer content that changes based on where you are. And if you just pictured a world where everyone's wearing Google Glass and seeing ads literally everywhere they look, you're not alone.

In the case of Ingress, developed by Google-owned Niantic Labs, what this means is that the game simply overlays virtual locations onto a real-world map, and decides what you can and can't interact with based on your apparent proximity to said locations. When you do away with all the viral marketing, conspiracy-theorist plot points and slick science-fiction interfaces, Ingress is basically an elaborate king of the hill game, based on controlling territory via teamwork and coordination. Players expend an in-game resource called "exotic matter" or XM (gained simply by walking around) to attack opposing portals, reinforce their own, and create links and fields.

Broadly, the idea is to connect three or more portals (generally located near local points of interest) to form a field, which covers the area between them. This then provides a "mind unit" score to your faction based on the population covered by the field. So controlling, for example, a big chunk of downtown Boston would be worth more than the equivalent area of a sparsely populated suburb. New portals can be submitted to Google, though the approval process takes upwards of a month.

I completed a tutorial in about 30 minutes, meandering through a residential neighborhood. I hunted and pecked at unfamiliar commands, and enjoyed the robotic beeps and boops that accompany most actions in the game. The game seems to require that you have the phone open and unlocked while walking around to gather XM, so the best option seemed to be holding it in a roomy coat pocket, hearing periodic notification noises as I snapped up resources.

Playing Ingress, particularly when you don't really know what you're doing, has an element of social awkwardness about it -- I felt a little like a tourist in my own neighborhood, walking toward uncertain destinations, constantly glancing at my phone. Still, the speed at which Ingress will have you learning new ways around even the most familiar of areas is startling, and highlights how immersive the game is.

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