Ingress, the augmented reality/location/social/geo game launched by game team inside Google, has been around for more than a year. It is open to anyone with an Android device, and is coming in 2014 to iOS devices. It's a game, but there is an underlying of question of what Google gets out of hosting, serving, and developing this global-scale game.
Google has offered free services for public data crunching before. It uses its reCAPTCHA verification service to decipher text in scanned books. It once used its free GOOG-411 phone information line to gather and analyze voices and improve its transcription powers. And Google Image Labeler was a rather direct appeal to our instinct to correct the internet.
So what about Ingress? Google and co. have given two answers, really. The most direct word is from the horse's mouth. The horse being Ingress product manager Brandon Badger, who told All Things D in October 2013 that Niantic Labs, the startup inside Google building out Ingress, has a certain motive.
(Niantic) wants to use what it has learned about location-based gaming from Ingress to build out a platform for outside developers of location-based games. Currently, Niantic’s devs are the only ones with access to a special version of Google’s local data, which allows them, for example, to feed Ingress players a custom map of local landmarks that looks more like something out of “The Matrix” than Google Maps.
But just because Niantic/Google says it is using Ingress for X doesn't mean it might also benefit from Y. There are other theories as to what a company like Google could get out of having people walk around while constantly supplying their location and "hacking" major landmarks.
On question-and-answer site Quora, one answer to this exact question got some notable up-votes from former Google engineers and product managers. Andrew Brown wrote back in November 2012 that:
All of this data will most likely be used to improve Google Maps functionality for pedestrians, possibly to compete with recently-announced Nokia Maps gives turn-by-turn walking navigation to all.
Google is fantastic at crunching data, and everything the players will be doing will eventually serve to build two libraries:
- A database of publicly-accessible locations available to pedestrians
- Routes taken by pedestrians between these locations
Others agree on the submission of points of interest (POI) as Ingress "portals" as key to the game's utility to Google. And then there are those who believe Ingress is going to become a kind of killer app for Glass, Google's wearable headset. Such as Gav, on his Red Iguana blog:
Google’s main revenue source is advertising. What if where this is all heading towards advertising in an augmented reality world? Sure, games like Ingress would be brilliantly fun play in AR with a smartphone and Google Glass, but I’m guessing that Google really wants to get to the point where the likes of Google Glass can be used to display AR adverts whilst you’re walking to work, or going for a jog, or even out sightseeing. Google’s advertising revenue is limited to when we’re at home, or at work, and tied to a computer. Well, Google Glass would allow Google to present adverts overlaid on the real world.
For what it's worth, a Niantic developer has actively denied Google's interest in crowd-sourced walking/POI data: "There's no ulterior motive." In fact, you can see the response at 56:16 in this Hangout recording:
I found that video link on the Talk page for Ingress' Wikipedia page. As is the nature of Wikipedia and the web, you have Niantic developers saying, as plainly as can be put, that they are not actively seeking or sharing information from Ingress players; the web shrugs and says, "We'll see."
Kind of a fun game within a game, in a way.