Virtuality in Physical Space: “Ingress” as Augmented Reality

Disclaimer: This post was written as part of my ANTH 370: Space and Place requirements in Fall 2016.

Ingress is a digital application game for mobile devices. The app uses the user’s GPS and mobile data information to place the player in an augmented reality map (Fig. 1, Fig. 4). The purpose of the game is to join one of two factions, and to capture cultural artifacts in the landscape. These artifacts include murals, statues, art installations, and major public buildings. The way in which a player “captures” an artifact is through the hacking and attacking of the defenses of a portal which has been placed in the game near where the artifact exists in unaugmented reality. Looking at a specific portal within Ingress—that of Macewan University Residence—I’ve worked to identify not only how the physical space within which Ingress exists effects players and non-players, but also how the physical and virtual spaces differ.

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Despite a number of gathering spaces located in the residence lobby, the design is overwhelmingly sociofugal. The inclusion of a moat separates people on the tables from the people on the couches from the people playing ping-pong from the people playing pool. Despite this, it is often a center of activity within the residence, as one or more of these spaces is almost always in use. There are large windows along quadrants C and D which look out to a small courtyard with trees and bushes. Between each of these windows there is a false potted tree. While there is extensive construction of the new Centre for the Arts and Culture building visible from the main doors, from the viewpoint of the C and D windows this construction is masked by the trees. This brings the nature of the outside in. The Residence building was designed with the intent of having a low carbon footprint, and the attempts made to bring nature into the space reflect that.

The sociofugal design of the Residence lobby is contrasted by the virtual design of Ingress. As a virtual space, Ingress is sociopedal in its design and requires a sense of cultura in order to be effectively navigated (Richardson 2003, 85-86). There are many opportunities to chat with other players through a built-in chat function, and real-time portal data is provided in the chat stream. Due to the player leveling functions in the game, it often takes groups of 2 or more to completely deplete enemy defense reserves on a high-level portal. As well, the primary method by which points may be earned for a faction is through linking of several portals together, an activity which is difficult to undertake alone (Ingress 2015). Though every portal will have images taken by players attached to the portal data (Fig. 2), due to the digital nature of the app Ingress excludes nature by design. Within the virtual space of Ingress there is a single point of focus, which is the portal. Within the physical space of residence this portal exists at the crux of the four quadrants. Due to the area of influence players inhabit within the game this portal is accessible from outside of residence, as well as in all spaces vertical to the portal. While the Ingress community is friendly overall, during the time allocated for research there was little activity, save for a few users talking about where they were planning to go for the day.

Within the physical space of Residence there are three areas which are the focus of attention, listed indexically: The main entryway, the front desk (which is visible immediately upon entrance), and a pool table. While the pool table is not immediately visible to those who enter the space, it exists as primary hubs of activity within the space. This is likely due to the fact that residents must pass by the table in order to travel to and from their rooms on the West side of the building. The most prominent interaction within the physical space which I was able to observe was that of the people at the pool table. As a small group of five people, I assumed from previous experience that passers-by would stop to join the game. This was not the case, despite the fact that the majority of foot traffic through the physical space at the time in question passed by the pool table. Despite this, the interaction amongst the pool players was familiar and friendly. This contrasted the majority of the traffic in the lobby who appeared to be passive, and only coming through the space in order to leave through the main entryway.

The interactions between the pool players mirrors that of the interactions within Ingress. While there was no activity to the portal at the time in question, there were several people talking about how they were to be spending their day (Fig 3). Though it was a public interaction, in that all players within the City were able to view the interaction, the conversation seemed private enough that no players joined the conversation past the original few.

The quadrant spaces of the lobby exist as expressions of material culture, as in each area there is evidence to their use (marks on the walls, implementation of equipment next to the pool table, etc). Other examples of material culture include posters advertising programs within the residence, and pamphlets available at the front desk. The space overarchingly s>mells of garbage (this is a smell I’ve become accustomed to and am no longer truly aware of). There is also a café which occasionally gives wafts of soup or cooking meats. The lighting specifically is interesting. There is overhead tunnel lighting from the entrance to the front desk, and again from the front desk to the elevator bays. This creates a sense of purpose for those entering residence to come to the front desk, or to return to their rooms. Within Ingress, the whole of the residence lobby exists as a piece of material culture through the existence of a portal. There are several challenge maps which may be undertaken, wherein a player is guided along a path of portals with the intent of hacking each portal along the way. The Macewan Residence portal acts as a starting point for at least three of these maps. As Ingress is available only on mobile devices there is a component of difficulty in discerning who is influencing the portal and who is not.

Residence exists as a primarily private space. The lobby exists both privately and publicly, depending on the time with which it is being accessed. Weekdays, from 7am-5pm, it exists publicly. At any other time it exists privately through the implementation of a “locked door” policy wherein residents and hotel guests must use their passcards to gain access to the lobby. The front desk exists as specifically private space. There exist private offices behind the front desk, and each of the elevator bays and room hallways require a passcard in order to gain access at all times. Ingress mirrors this, somewhat, in that people who do not have a player account are not able to access the full app. Though it is significantly more difficult to gain access to residence, this is not to say that access to the portal is allowed to all persons within the physical space of Residence. Additionally, although the portal is accessible from outside of the lobby, it is not accessible from all areas of Residence due to area of influence players exhibit (Fig. 1).

As an employee of residence I expected to be more aware of the actual number of people moving through the lobby than I was. The fact that there were in excess of 30 exits from residence in the span of only an hour was shocking to me. When not paying full attention to the movings of people within the space, it definitely feels like there is less movement than there is. Doing my quantitative analysis during a Saturday morning shift (one of the slowest shifts of the week) was beneficial as it gave me the opportunity to take more detailed notes on what, comparatively, little movement there was. I would be interested to see the amount and types of movement there is during a weekday morning shift, however it realistically gets too busy for me to take accurate notes while on shift, and the only time I’m not on shift during weekdays is when I’m in class so the opportunity just isn’t there.

As a relatively new player of Ingress I don’t necessarily have a fully fleshed out concept of what would be “normal” activity for the time period I chose. Having said this, I was somewhat surprised to see no activity to the portal at all. The Ingress community is very active in Edmonton, and through the app one is able to see all activity of all portals within a specific area (Fig. 3). Usually late nights and early mornings are the most active times of the day, but on my research day this was not the case. In the future I would be interested in seeing if there is a way to quantify the Ingress portal data through the app, if not to see the activity of a specific portal but of a specific area (ex. neighborhood, city, etc). This data is available in real-time, but finding a way to collect it over a period of time for reference later would be more useful.

Residence acts as a transitory space. This is true not only of the lobby physically, but also in that many who live in residence use the space as an in-between their parent’s home and their first apartment. This is mirrored by Ingress in the way that portals never stay captured by a single faction for too long. This is not to say that the two spaces are identical, as while the physical space is sociofugal in design, Ingress requires cultura.The juxtaposition of the two spaces together shows differing values within the differing communities. Where residence tries to get one out of the community (toward a degree, assumedly), Ingress pulls one in.


“Ingress.” Ingress Wiki. Accessed October 15, 2015. <;.

Richardson, Miles. “Being-in-the-Market Versus Being-in-the-Plaza: Material Culture and the Construction of Social Reality in Spanish America.” In The Anthropology of Space and Place, edited by Setha M. Low and Denise Lawrence-Zúñiga, 74-91. Blackwell Publishing, 2003.