December 04, 2012, 3:28 PM — 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.
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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.