"A mysterious cell phone, and a 911 emergency call. That’s what got me looking. And when I started looking, I started finding." Google does not usually get this dramatic during its product announcements.
But when the company’s massively multiplayer augmented reality game, Ingress, launched in November, there were no Google executives preaching its greatest features from a podium. No corporate blog posts. No clean white videos with step-by-step instructions about how to use the game. Instead, a mysterious website and Google+ page began posting clues, which included "classified" documents, incomprehensible posters, and amateur-style videos with a hint of the supernatural. Clues mentioned "the Niantic project" without pointing specifically to a new product, but were suggestive enough to get bloggers guessing.
Only after Google established this elaborate sci-fi production did it reveal Ingress.
Ingress has clearly not followed the traditional Google playbook. But the marketing campaign is only one sign of its major departure from Google’s more established products. Niantic Labs, the Google team behind the game, plays by entirely different rules than other product teams.
"I’ve done as much as possible to really set it up like a startup," explains John Hanke, who launched Niantic Labs.
Hanke, then Google’s head of geo, wanted to get hands-on with new products. Instead of losing a key employee to a startup, Google offered him the opportunity to pursue his ideas without leaving—to instead establish something of a safe house for the company's startup mentality. Google has more than 30,000 employees and more than one billion users. It needs a standard playbook. But within Niantic Labs, a corner of the giant company operates with the focus and flexibility of a startup. The team is free to focus entirely on new products Google will need to stay relevant.
Niantic Labs, like a startup, began without a product. Though it benefits from Google's data, engineers, and resources, it does not have heavyweight processes for managing them. Hanke says that while leading the geo team he used about 20% to 30% of the team’s time on processes such as reviewing future plans and analyzing performance. Now he and his team spend almost all of their time on the product. "When it comes to what is the process for thinking about promotions, what is the process for thinking about how the team is compensated," Hanke says, "all of those things have been re-conceived in this group and we’ve done away with the stuff that seems like overhead and put in streamlined things that seem more appropriate for a startup."
The focus on building has paid off. Niantic Labs launched two products within a couple months of each other. The first, Field Trip, runs in the background on Android phones and gives users information about the places they pass. The second was Ingress, in which users collect "energy" by walking and spend it on missions to unlock augmented reality "portals" that are often situated on popular landmarks.
Pedestrian data collected through Niantic Labs products could help Google make better maps and augmented reality products. Ingress also has some advertising partnerships. But Hanke says his team’s goal is to develop products that facilitate interaction with the real world, both today and when computers become so integrated with our lives that they fade into the background. Google Now experiments with automatic search and Google Glass, expected to go on sale in 2014, is a new take on ubiquitous computing. Niantic Labs is looking a few steps further into the future.
In other words, it’s answering the question, "If Google Glass existed, what would you do with it?"
It’s a question Hanke says is best answered away from the hustle of a 30,000-employee company.
"You could say, ‘you could do everything Niantic is doing from within geo,'" Hanke says. "I felt like the other things always took priority. Today’s products and the immediate needs of those products are going to take up all of your attention, and it’s very difficult to carve out the time and attention to just start from a blank slate and think about the future and then to go out and really focus on building things that are further out."
"I guess that’s the advantage of doing it in this sort of startup thing instead. We didn’t have any existing responsibilities. We did start from a blank slate."
[Image: Flickr user Indenture]