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Exclusive: Inside the Mind of Google's Greatest Idea Man, John Hanke

Serial entrepreneur John Hanke created the first iterations of Google Earth, Maps, and Street View. For his second act, he's now re-imagining the world through augmented reality.
John Hanke smiles as he to London via video teleconference from Google Earth's offices in New York.
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John Hanke keeps a low profile around Silicon Valley, but his creations speak for themselves.

Twelve years ago, Hanke took notice of a few interesting developments. First, consumerized 3-D graphics had become affordable and easy to use. Second, broadband and high-speed Internet were rapidly becoming available to people all over the world. Third, and perhaps most importantly, he began to notice the commercialization of aerial photography technology, which had previously been off-limits. In other words, the time was ripe to build a product that would change the way people visualize the world.

In 2000, he did just that. Hanke co-founded Keyhole, a software development firm in the then-nascent field of consumerized "spatial visualization." It didn't take long for Google to notice their work. In 2004, the search giant acquired Keyhole and Hanke's team, and developed Keyhole into what is now Google Earth. From 2004 to 2010, Hanke ran the Google Geo team, which has been responsible for the creation of tools like Google Maps and Google Street View.

A true entrepreneur at heart, Hanke left his role at Google in 2010 to start Niantic Labs, an incubator inside Google that's recently released its first two products--Field Trip and Ingress. Inc.'s Eric Markowitz and Hanke discussed augmented reality, creating a start-up within Google, and his obsession with maps.

You were the product leader for all things "geo" from 2004 to 2010. Why give up that role?
At the end of that time period it went from being very much a start-up with Keyhole with a few dozen people inside Google to something that was hundreds of people spread all around the world. At the same time, there were some things related to maps that I wanted to do, that didn't really fit in terms of the mainstream [company] focus. So after six years I was ready to clear the slate and start fresh and go build another product.

I looked into doing something outside of Google--that was my first reaction. I said, "I want to go do another start-up." But I talked to Larry and some other guys inside of Google, and we found a way to create an environment inside the company that felt like a start-up.

Staying at Google gave us the advantage of being able to tap into the data we have in Geo and the infrastructure in Google. There were a lot of advantages to doing that from inside Google with everything we could leverage.

Field Trip was the first app to be launched out of Niantic. Why did you choose that to be your first?
The inspiration for Field Trip is very directly related to my experience with Google Maps and Earth. One of the things that those products spawned was this movement to visualize information on top of Maps and Earth, and lots of companies started out with the goal of creating map layers of various things--everything from restaurant reviews to history to images.

And as we started thinking about Geo on a mobile device, one thing that intrigued me was: How do you make these cool layers of information available on mobile, so that in addition to the basic functions of getting from A to B, of driving directions and restaurant reviews, what about all this other information about the world?

The more we saw it as a problem, the more it became clear that a lot of times you don't actually need the map in mobile. What would be interesting would be to take those layers of information and put them in front of you at the point in time when you're at that specific location in the world.

So it all kind of led to this idea where we could build up these layers of info that would be really useful and interesting in terms of informing you about the world around you and just drop it in front you at the right time as you're walking or driving.

Plenty of people have used the phrase "augmented reality" to describe your work. Would you say that's accurate?
Sure. The reality is people think about augmented reality as Terminator-style glasses and the hardware side to it, but our angle was if you had hardware like that, what would you do with it? If you could put a bubble around the world, what would you want the bubble to say?

Again, it comes back to it thinking about what's interesting about the world. What's worth noting?  And that led us down the path of history and historical markets. Field Trip has a deep collection of local history through a partnership with Arcadia. We want to help people learn. When you think about a museum, you have annotations on each exhibit, so the notion was, 'Let's make the whole world like that.' This lets you see beneath the surface to tell you something interesting that you might not know.

Where did the name "Niantic" come from?
The Niantic is the name of a whaling ship that came up during the gold rush and through a variety of circumstances got dragged on shore. This happened with other ships, too. Over the years, San Francisco was basically just built over these ships. You could stand on top of them now, and you wouldn't know it. So it's this idea that there's stuff about the world that's really cool but even though it's on the Internet, it's hard to know when you're actually there. It's hard to stop every 10 feet and do a Google search to try and find stuff about what's in front of you.

You mentioned hardware before, which brings up an interesting question. Do you collaborate with other divisions in Google--like Google glasses, for instance--to integrate what you're working on?
We collaborate with other teams. We definitely have discussions with people in the Glass group about what could be an interesting way to expose what we're doing with that hardware.


Let's talk about Ingress, because it seems like there's a lot of mystery in the air surrounding the game. What is it exactly?
In the case of Ingress the activity is layered on top of the real world and on your phone. The inspiration was that it was something that I always used to daydream about while I was commuting back and forth from home to Google. I always thought you could make an awesome game using all the Geo data that we have. I watched phones become more and more powerful and I thought the time would come that you could do a really awesome real-world adventure-based game. I also have three kids and I grew up playing and writing video games, so I have a soft spot in my heart for video games. But as a parent, I sort of brindle at the sight of my kids just parked in front of the TV for long periods of time.

There's been speculation about how Google will use the data generated by the game. Is this an active conversation?
Right now we're focused on building a great gaming experience. I think you're right that mobile applications have the opportunity to potentially generate a lot of data that can be useful for various kinds of services. So you could look at Foursquare Check-ins or photos coming from Instagram. Those are the two canonical examples. With Ingress, people are going out and interacting with people in the world, and they're submitting photos that are interesting to them that can be incorporated into the game, so there could be ways to make use of information to improve Google Maps or Google mobile, but that will come later for us. None of that will be interesting if we don't have a very successful and entertaining game.

In your opinion, what's been the most successful part of the game?
Honestly, Ingress surprised me in terms of the response. Ingress is much edgier and in some ways a riskier product, but it seems to have really struck a chord. What I love is people going out and discovering the history of their town in the process of playing this game. Parents are doing this with their kids. We've gotten emails from parents saying 'We took our kids and visited 12 historical sights in my town I've been by hundreds of times and never bothered to stop before.' It's super cool.

So, last question, and I want to get a little more personal. Why are you so obsessed with maps and location?
[Laughs] I just think the world is an interesting place and exploring it is fundamental to me. It makes life interesting. I grew up in a really isolated town in West Texas, so I kind of grew up daydreaming about other places. And I think a lot of people who grow up in small towns share that feeling of 'I can't wait to go out and see the wider world.' I've always carried that with me. And as a parent, the idea of appreciating what's in front of me is important. And maybe it's the economy, or maybe it's just a trend, but people are trying to figure out what can make their communities better, versus, I don’t know, daydreaming about that trip to Europe or going off to Hawaii.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

IMAGE: Kathy Willens/AP
Last updated: Dec 20, 2012




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