GPS

Ingress - an AR-MMOG created by Niantic Labs at Google

I don't often write about games on my blog, but this one deserves an exception, because it is extremely innovative, unique, and a harbinger of things to come. On November 15 Google launched a closed beta of Ingress, a sci-fi themed game currently available only on the Android platform.

Ingress defines a new category of game that could probably be best described as AR-MMOG (Augmented Reality - Massively Multiplayer Online Game). The basic premise is that an alien influence called Shapers are trying to control human thought and are entering the world through portals that are often associated with historically significant locations, statues, or public displays of arts. These portals are associated with Exotic Matter (called XM in the game) that needs to be collected to energize the player as well as the portals.

Players must move through the real world and visit these portals with their GPS-equipped Android smartphones to play the game.

The objective is to hack the portals, link different portals, and create so-called control fields by forming triangles of linked portals. After completing a few training missions, players must choose a faction and either side with the Resistance, who are trying to protect mankind and prevent further Shaper influence, or side with the Enlightened, who consider Shaper influence to be beneficial and usher in the next logical step in the evolution of mankind.

Enlightened vs. Resistance

I was very happy to receive my invite to the closed beta on November 21 and found some time on the morning of Thanksgiving Day as well as on Black Friday to play the game on my Galaxy SIII. Doing so allowed me to take some extensive walks on both days and burn off a lot of the food calories that would have accumulated otherwise.

Playing the game is extremely addictive. I decided to join the Resistance and explored the available portals in and around Marblehead on the first day. Capturing my first few portals was fairly easy, but then I encountered some Enlightened portals that gave me a good challenge right away. Most of the portals are directly taken from the Historical Marker Database, so you learn a lot more about the history while playing the game. I also found that having a car to drive to neighboring towns and some remote portal locations is a huge bonus - especially when you get to deploy higher-level portals that have a range of several kilometers available for linking.

For example, on one of my excursions I took a stroll through downtown Salem in my quest to capture more portals and found one above the statue of Roger Conant:

Approaching a portal in Salem

By hacking and capturing one portal after the other, I was able to not only collect the required items for linking portals together, but also the necessary weapons for attacking portals of the opposing faction. And it didn't take long for me to eliminate all of the Enlightened influence in my area and connect several of the portals in Marblehead to create the necessary control fields that are then shown on the display of the Ingress app:

Control Fields in Marblehead

As I leveled up, I was able to create more powerful portals that allowed linkages over several kilometers distance and so I used Black Friday for some further excursions into Salem as well as trips to Swampscott and Nahant that allowed me to create a much larger field to protect all the inhabitants in my immediate vicinity:

Larger area control fields

Now it is only a matter of time until the Enlightened students at MIT try to increase their influence further north and will begin their attack on the North Shore. I am sure a battle of epic proportions will ensue in the days to come:

Larger Boston Area Intel

Ingress is extremely well done for a beta version of a game. I can only assume that Google has done some extensive internal testing before opening up the beta to people outside. And the combination of GPS, mapping, the historical marker database, and the many different web properties (see list below) combine to provide a truly addictive game-playing experience.

Even before you get immersed in the actual gameplay - and while you anxiously await the arrival of your invitation to participate in the beta - there are several websites that provide hints at the background story, videos, and artwork by fictions characters that appear to exhibit signs of Shaper influence.

One can easily see how Google's Project Glass will be used in a future version of this game that takes augmented reality game-play to a whole new level…

Obviously, there are also some privacy implications in such kind of gameplay and several bloggers have already questioned Google's motives in creating this game. Allegations range from creating an optimized database of walking paths for further enhancing Google Maps to more sinister data collection for advertising purposes.

Be that as it may, for the time being I will continue participating in the beta for a very simple reason: the game is actually a lot of fun to play!

Further information on Ingress can be found here:

Also see blog posts on AllThingsD, Engadget, pandodaily, The Verge, TechCrunch, and others…

P.S. Don't ask me for an invite, as I don't have any to give away, sorry!

Privacy, geo-location, and over-sharing

There has been plenty of discussion already on privacy settings on Facebook and how our approach to sharing personal information on social networking sites has changed over the years – and I’m not going to repeat any of that. However, the recent growth and considerable hype around geo-location, location-based services, and location-sharing on social networks has taken over-sharing to a whole new level.

Applications like FourSquare and Gowalla, who let users earn badges or awards for checking-in when they visit a restaurant or other location are now often linked to Facebook or Twitter. People post their travel plans on services like Dopplr and TripIt. Facebook itself added the Places feature recently. And Twitter has captured the location of each tweet for quite a while already, provided you use a Twitter app on your GPS-enabled smartphone or allow your browser to determine your location based on your IP address.

Now this all sounds really cool and for a while apps like Foursquare are indeed a novelty and fun to use. In fact, I like to experiment with new things myself and will admit to even becoming the mayor of 25 places on Foursquare, before I quit.

The problem with all of that geo-location information is, of course, that it is more widely available than you would imagine – and sometimes it is even publicly available, e.g. when you connect other geo-location services to Twitter, or when you use the geo-tagging of tweets on Twitter itself. Keep in mind that by default all tweets are public, unless you restrict them to only your followers.

PleaseRobMeConcerns about this issue have been voiced by others before, e.g. the web site PleaseRobMe.com was launched in early 2010 and displayed aggregate information from Twitter and other sources to publicly show when a person was not at home. It was a stunt to draw attention to this problem, and the site no longer shows that info, but it was an effective theoretical experiment.

This experimental threat has now become reality. Last week, police finally caught up with a burglary gang in New Hampshire that had robbed multiple homes this summer, where the homeowners had announced via Facebook that they were not at home, on a vacation, or provided some other information that could be used to infer that the house was going to be empty.

So what about using privacy settings to make sure only your real friends can see this information? That may sound like a good approach at first, but keep in mind that once you share that information with any app or social networking website, it is stored in a database somewhere – and once it is stored somewhere it can be found and abused by someone. In fact, just this week Google fired one of their engineers for stalking teenagers, whose information he had obtained from the kids’ GMail and chat accounts.

solution_thedevice We use GPS ankle-bracelets to track sex offenders and other criminals in our criminal justice system. As a free citizen, why would we voluntarily want to provide anybody with the same tracking information about our personal life and whereabouts?

So here is what I did this weekend to end my own over-sharing of geo-location information:

  • I deleted my FourSquare account and the FourSquare app from my iPhone
  • I deleted my Gowalla account
  • I deleted the Twitter app from my iPhone
  • I changed my Twitter settings to turn off “TweetLocation” and deleted all location information from my past tweets:
    TwitterCapture
  • I deleted the Facebook app from my iPhone
  • I adjusted my Facebook privacy settings to hide all Places information, to not allow others to check me into Places, and to never include me in “People Here Now”. I also tightened down all the other privacy settings to the maximum.
  • I deleted my Dopplr account
  • I decided to no longer post any messages on Twitter or Facebook that would reveal my travel plans (“flying to Las Vegas tomorrow”), current location (“family dinner at Asahi – awesome sushi here”), or my whereabouts (“I’m on the boat”)

And I’m not even sure I got all the places that I may have signed up for in the past, so cleansing my digital tracks and removing all geo-location information and ending past over-sharing will be an ongoing process…

Google Latitude provides location-based social networking

I've always been a big fan of GPS and geo-coding. In fact, I've been teaching GPS seminars for our local boating education group, the Marblehead Sail & Power Squadron for years. So when early location-based social networks like Loopt and others started to appear, I immediately tested them, but found them to be quite useless in the end since few of my friends have the same early-adopter mentality, and quite a few - especially those in Europe - are more concerned about their privacy.

So I was delighted to hear that Google jumped into the location-based networking arena today with their new Google Latitude system. They have an application out for several mobile devices already, and the iPhone/iTouch version is promised to be released soon. You can also update your location from a regular web-browser.

This promises to be a very interesting service, and I hope that with the heft of Google behind it, location-based social networking will finally take off. If you decide to try it out, send me a friend request to alexander dot falk at gmail dot com.

There is also already a review from Katharine Boehret in The Mossberg Solution (Wall Street Journal) today.

Google Earth with photo-realistic 3D buildings

Oops. Where did the entire fall go? Can't believe the holiday season is on our doorstep and I haven't found time to post on the blog for over a month. There, now I've done it: I have committed the cardinal sin of blogging. I've blogged about not blogging. You are just not supposed to do that...

On a more happy note, I was very excited to see the recent update of the 3D building database in Google Earth that adds tons of photo-realistic building images for several major US cities. This is a view of Boston from above the harbor, with Faneuil Hall on the right:

Boston3D

If you have an iPhone, make sure to also try the Google Earth app for the iPhone, which is pretty amazing, too.

So what does this have to do with XML, you ask? All the buildings are encoded in KML, which is an open XML-based standard for geo-spatial information. And Google has created a huge 3D Warehouse of building images that are available in KML as well as other formats. To learn more about KML, take a look at this tutorial or the KML reference.

FaneuilHallBoston For example, this image on the left is a rendition of the Faneuil Hall model from the 3D Warehouse that was used in the above image on Google Earth. If you download the KML file from the warehouse, it comes in a KMZ archive, which is a ZIP-compressed package file. To explore this file in the XMLSpy XML Editor, all we have to do is add the KMZ file extension under Tools/Options and specify that it is a ZIP conformant file format.

Similarly, add the KML extension and specify that it is XML conformant. Now you can open all KMZ files in XMLSpy, see the files contained in the package, and directly open the KML file to view the XML markup it contains (this is just the beginning of the file):

FaneuilHallKML

More info on the new 3D buildings and a few screenshots of New York can be found on the Google Earth Blog. So get yourself a copy of Google Earth and start exploring...

Atomic Clocks, Street Views, and Flash Disks

A few random things caught my eye today:

GPS has brought atomic precision time to us in the form of small portable GPS devices, as well as network time-servers that sync with the GPS data. The time from the GPS satellites comes to us with such precision, because the satellites carry cesium atomic clocks on board and are synchronized with ground-based clocks and being corrected for relativistic effects.
But for some folks getting the atomic time from GPS is not enough - they call themselves "Time Nuts" and have atomic clocks (such as the 5071A) at home as a hobby. See also this nice article in Wired today. Wow! I've always loved time, clocks, calendar calculations, leap seconds, and physics. I guess that's a hobby that I could get into, too....

From atomic clocks and GPS it is only a small leap to navigation, which brings us to cartography, which brings us to Google Maps - and the second item of interest today: Google has launched Street View in eight new cities in the US, including Boston. Very cool.

Last, but not least, here is something I want in my next laptop: Toshiba announced a 128GB Flash HDD yesterday. My current laptop has a 80GB conventional disk drive, and it looks like the form factor of that Toshiba drive would allow for an actual replacement.

Geo-coding your photos efficiently

I love to take photos and digital cameras have certainly become the norm since the turn of the century. A new gadget from Sony recently caught my attention, because it promises to provide geo-coded Lat and Lon information for digital photos through GPS logging.

It is called the GPS-CS1KA and works on a surprisingly straight-forward principle: you turn the device on as you are taking pictures and it simply records your GPS position every minute or so. It is powered by just one AA battery and can record up to 10 hours of position data on one charge. The device comes with a USB-cable and associated software that lets you transfer the GPS logs to your computer. Then, when you have downloaded your photos from your digital camera into your computer, the software will automatically match the GPS log to the digital photos based on the timestamp information in will add Lat and Lon data to the JPEG files. This is appended to the file as regular EXIF information in the same way that your camera uses to store its metadata (shutter speed, aperture, etc.).

And why does this XML aficionado care about EXIF data? Well, that is really quite simple: the well-known jhead utility allow you to extract EXIF data from JPEG images to automate the process of building and manipulating image collections, and a very popular patch for jhead does, of course, support XML output, which makes this ideal for creating galleries/archives/directories or doing any other kind of post-processing for Web 2.0 apps.

I recently tested the Sony GPS-CS1KA device during an afternoon sail in Nahant Bay on a friend's boat, and the operation was indeed very simple. Once I had merged the photos with the GPS information, I uploaded the photos to my photo sharing website, which provides direct linking with Google Maps to utilize the included position data. You can see the result by going to this photo gallery and then clicking on “show” underneath the word timeline and zooming out a bit – this will show our approximate track that day and each green marker represents one photo, which you can view by clicking on the marker.