Names to drop John Hanke

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The geek lord be­hind Google Earth is build­ing a new kind of video game


John Hanke has been help­ing peo­ple find their way in the world for years. He co-founded Key­hole, the ‘geospa­tial vi­su­al­i­sa­tion’ company that be­came Google Earth, then took over the team that cre­ated Google Maps and Street View. Not con­tent with turn­ing ev­ery­one’s phone into a near-per­fect nav­i­ga­tion de­vice, he left the Geo di­vi­sion to head up Niantic Labs, one of Google’s ideas fac­to­ries. Since then, he’s helped cre­ate Field Trip, an app that tells you about in­ter­est­ing stuff nearby, but that’s just the be­gin­ning: his goal is to get us play­ing lo­ca­tion-aware games that use the real world as the ul­ti­mate level map.

I’ve al­ways loved maps.

Na­tional Ge­o­graphic was a big thing in the States when I was a kid. They al­ways had the gi­ant fold-out maps of the Nile and Egyp­tian cul­ture, and I could spend hours imag­in­ing go­ing to th­ese in­ter­est­ing places. Back be­fore com­put­ers, that was an es­cape.

I look to early video games for in­spi­ra­tion.

I worked on one of the first true MMO games, called Merid­ian 59. It was a pre­cur­sor to Ul­tima On­line, EverQuest and World Of War­craft, and that taught me pa­tience. That’s some­thing I brought to Google Earth – to know that th­ese things take time to grow in peo­ple’s minds. For the tech­nol­ogy to evolve, you re­ally have to be in it for the long run.

The tech­nol­ogy I’m fo­cused on right now is aug­mented re­al­ity.

There’s a book called Rainbow’s End by Ver­nor Vinge that paints a pic­ture of a fu­ture where every­body has im­planted aug­mented re­al­ity ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Every­body lives in this stylised ver­sion of the world that suits them, and peo­ple play games over­laid on their sur­round­ings. I think that’s a tech­nol­ogy that’s go­ing to hap­pen – it’s go­ing to take a decade or more, but it will hap­pen.

That’s why we’re mak­ing al­ter­nate re­al­ity games (ARGs).

Our first is called Ingress – it’s a strat­egy game. Our first event was held in sub-zero weather, but 75 peo­ple showed up and played Ingress all day. At our last event we had 2000 peo­ple in Mu­nich, plus another 1500 in the US and another 2000 in re­mote ci­ties. All of those peo­ple are op­er­at­ing on tac­ti­cal plans on the day, which they have been work­ing on for weeks.

Wear­able tech could make ARGs even bet­ter.

I can imag­ine play­ing Ingress com­pletely through a smart­watch, talk­ing to the peo­ple around me, tap­ping my watch, and ev­ery now and then us­ing an ear­piece: us­ing the tech in a way that’s a lot less dis­rup­tive than the phone is now.

Our new ARG, Endgame, also uses an old-school tech­nol­ogy: books.

We are tak­ing a set of char­ac­ters that are con­nected to the lead char­ac­ters of the novel Endgame, and they are go­ing to en­gage with the play­ers of Endgame the game. We’ll evolve the story based on how the game de­vel­ops, in much the same way we’ve done with Ingress, while the Endgame books are also pro­gress­ing. It’s just a much more open-ended, flex­i­ble, im­mer­sive, longer-last­ing way of telling a story. I think it’s the fu­ture for cer­tain types of story, those where you re­ally want to cre­ate al­ter­na­tive worlds. You’ll start with a gi­ant pal­ette, cre­at­ing the uni­verse, and then start mak­ing dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tives and ex­pe­ri­ences within it. If Tolkien was around to­day, he would do that.

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