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Last year, Google introduced two futuristic projects that only the geekiest of us could love. First was Project Glass, the company's augmented reality spectacles that act like something out of a sci-fi movie, overlaying data, e-mail, Yelp recommendations or whatever on your actual view of the real world as you walk around it.
Project Glass debuted with a rather impressive stunt that involved skydivers parachuting on to the roof of San Francisco's Moscone Convention Center while livecasting the whole jump to an audience inside the building via a pair of the glasses.
Then in the fall a Google spinoff debuted a real-world augmented reality game called Ingress. Players use a 3G-connected Android device to search for "portals" which are hidden in locations in the real world, but only visible on the game app when using a GPS-enabled device.
Both Ingress and Project Glass seem innocent enough on the surface, but keep in mind that Google's primary mission is to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."
To achieve the goal, Google needs to first gather all that information. With its near monopoly on search, the company has already come a long way towards achieving its goal with respect to much of the world's online information, but to be successful in cornering the market on information from the real-life, physical world, Google needs our help.
While players in Ingress are wandering around the world looking to capture control of portals, the game is constantly giving them specific instructions to follow certain routes while looking for a place or object, and even sometimes asking users to take pictures along the way. All the while, location and accelerometer data from the device (and the photos) are being transmitted back to Google servers.
Much of that on-the-ground geographic data could be pretty useful to a company that's invested several years sending special camera and GPS-equipped cars, bikes and even aircraft around the world to improve services like Google Maps and Street View.
While less is known about how Project Glass will work -- the first developer meetings for the special hardware are coming up in the next few weeks -- it seems conceivable that the device, in addition to being just plain cool, could also be transforming consumers into full-time data gathering robots for Google.
All this might sound a little nefarious, but it wouldn't be the first time Google disguised an internal crowdsourcing effort as a game.
Back in the much lower-tech days of 2006 Google launched a novel game called Image Labeler in which two players were matched online and played a Password-like game where they were given the same image and asked to think of as many labels as they could for the images, with the goal of coming up with the same label to be able to move on to another image.
The game was online for 5 years, and during that time Google swiped the data produced by players to improve its online image search.
In the end, it could be Google that makes crowdsourcing a fully mainstream concept without ever uttering its name, and all by silently conscripting us into one huge human algorithm.
- Eric Mack is Managing Editor for Crowdsourcing.org. He has covered business, technology and politics for more than a decade for major outlets including CNET, CBS, AOL, NPR, Wired, and the New York Times. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter and Google+. Also be sure to follow Crowdsourcing.org on Twitter and join our Crowdsourcing community on Google+.