How to get billions of points of geospatial navigation data for free.

Google just launched Ingress, a mobile alternative reality game on Android. It looks dorky, epic, and awesome:

The question, though, is “why”? Why would a company driven by search take the time to produce an AR game?

Redditor Shaper_pmp explains:

Remember Google’s free automated directory enquiries service that everyone wondered about (“why would they do that? What’s the benefit? Where’s the business model?”), that they cleverly used to quickly and effectively build a vast corpus of spoken word queries in a variety of accents, and to train the voice-recognition systems that subsequently made it into Google Voice and Android… and then as soon as it was built, they shut down GOOG-411.

Or how about ReCAPTCHA, where their free CAPTCHA service also helped them to automatically resolve edge-cases and unrecognised words when production-line digitising books for Google Books?

Users can generate virtual energy needed to play the game by… traveling walking paths, like a real-world version of Pac-Man. Then they spend the energy going on missions around the world to “portals,” which are virtually associated with public art, libraries and other widely accessible places… Outdoor physical activity is a big component of this, though driving between locations isn’t banned

I.e., it’s very, very much about walking places… while carrying a GPS-enabled mobile device with a camera and accelerometer and wi-fi and mobile data connection built into it… while running their app that can report whatever it wants back to their servers and has to for you to be able to play the game.

Players walk around footpaths and pedestrian routes that Google Maps currently doesn’t cover well, and then as a reward they get to… walk around art installations, libraries and other large, pedestrian-only public areas. All the time the game client is reporting back to Google their position, speed and the like, so Google gets to build a massive database of popular pedestrian-accessible areas and common routes between and around them. It’s genius.

Google’s strength is how well they can align user interests with their own. Where Apple competes with a premium product for a premium price, and Amazon on price floors and convenience, Google has the unique ability to make free, wonderful tools that make all our lives easier while simultaneously driving their own business interests.

I can’t wait to get this thing for iPhone.