Google's Niantic Labs—one of the many ways CEO Larry Page is trying to get employees to break out and try bold, risky experiments—has been a bit of a mystery until very recently.
So what is it, exactly?
Niantic Labs quietly released a local-business-search app, Field Trip, in September.
But it really drew notice in November 2012, when it started posting monthly "investigations" on its very cryptic website about a "Niantic Project."
The postings feel a bit like "The X-Files" and "Lost," TV series which drew readers in by constantly dropping clues to complex, interwoven story lines.
The first one was called "The Sphere of Weirdness." It featured an introductory video that offered very few details about what the Niantic Project actually is.
Here's the gist of the video: "There's more to the world than you can truly see. You've sensed it but you cannot tell ... something is very wrong. Strange occurrences. Visions affecting us. Are we being watched? I'm a truth seeker with many questions. The most important is: What is the Niantic Project?"
While the video didn't actually answer that question, we now know that Niantic Labs is a separate team within Google that makes products to help people interact with the real world.
"I've done as much as possible to really set it up like a startup," team leader John Hanke told Fast Company's Sarah Kessler.
Before Hanke set up Niantic Labs, he ran Google's Geo team—a group embracing most location-based products.
Hanke said he wants the Niantic team to feel free to think about and actually build future products.
So far, the lab has released two very different products—though location is at the core of both.
Niantic Labs' first product, Field Trip, is essentially a personal tour guide that runs in the background and alerts you when you walk by places that might be of interest to you.
Niantic Labs also recently partnered with Scoutmob to bring free local deals to Field Trip. So when you walk by a local business currently offering a deal, Field Trip will ping you.
Shortly after launching its website in November, Niantic Labs introduced a multiplayer, map-based, augmented-reality game called Ingress. It's supposed to take about a year and a half to complete.
The game's plot revolves around a powerful energy force, and requires players to pick a side — either pro-energy or anti-energy. Depending on which side you choose, your goal is to either spread or stop the energy.
You play the game in the real world, but Niantic's app overlays information and visuals on top of real-world locations—in San Francisco, they're often local landmarks like the Cupid's Span statue on the Embarcadero or the Castro Theater.
As Hanke told Fast Company, Niantic's goal is to build products that help people interact with the real world. In order to that, Hanke says it's best to start from a blank slate without any preexisting responsibilities.
How will Google fold Niantic's discoveries back into its regular products? That map is far from clear. But it shows a fascinating path Google is pursuing for innovation.
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