AR Game World Overlays the Exploratorium at Piers 15-17
by Rob Rothfarb • August 3, 2013
Museums have sometimes been locations where alternate reality games (ARGs) have played out (see the Smithsonian Institution’s Vanished, Ghosts of a Chance, and Pheon games). Currently, a mobile augmented reality /ARG hybrid game called Ingress, from Google’s Niantic Labs, is being played globally, and it’s San Francisco play field includes the Exploratorium’s new campus at Piers 15-17.
Ingress screenshot showing Pi Shrine game 'portal' at Pier 15
It’s a capture-the-flag type game with an involved sci-fi story that matches players on two different teams to stake out virtual hotspots called portals and to keep them ‘energized’ and protected from attack from the opposing team. These portals can be linked together creating triangular structures called control fields. The game is bolstered by The Niantic Project website, which provides back-story and clues to staying ahead in the game. Using real-world locations, as tracked and interacted with on digital maps as it’s game space, players are required to be physically present at specific locations in order to play and advance in the game. Portals and other structures are overlaid onto the player’s mobile device map, and the app and game website allow players to stay in touch with each other via text chat channels.
While Ingress isn’t an educational game, and the Exploratorium isn’t involved in any way in presenting it or any of its game play elements, there are some features of the game as played in San Francisco that connect it to the Exploratorium’s physical location and which reference specific exhibits in the outdoor areas of the museum. In order to play, you spend a fair amount of time exploring real-world environments and observing details about human-made and natural structures and objects. Players can submit new locations for portals through the app by taking a geotagged photo of a suitable location. These activities, similar to those of geocaching, provide great ways to notice the local environment around us and to discover places, historical and cultural markers, works of art, and interesting views. By combining locales with overlaid game structures (the augmented reality & virtual world part) with an evolving interactive game story (the alternate reality part), Ingress pushes the frontier of mobile transmedia gaming on a world-wide scale.
When I first started playing the game, I was happy to discover that there was an Ingress portal on the Exploratorium’s Pi Shrine. This circular disc, which celebrates the number and concepts of Pi and is embedded in the outdoor plaza of Pier 15, becomes a focal point for game play in the area. Several other iconic structures in our outdoor spaces–including the Aeolian Harp and the Gyroid, have geolocated portals. Since these portals have appeared at the museum, I find myself checking the status at these locations periodically and doing all the things you can do in the game–hacking, firing virtual energy weapons, charging ‘resonators’, and outfitting the portals with self-protecting shields and other ‘mods’.
Ingress is described as being in a beta phase currently and is available for Android mobile devices. To play, visit the game website to request an activation code or get an invitation from another player. Then, download the Ingress app from the Google Play Store to get started. It’s not clear whether the game will take on another phase once the ‘beta’ period is over or if it’ll become available for IOS or Windows mobile devices.
Screenshot from Ingress showing game play locations
in San Francisco