For those of us who don’t have a particular nostalgic connection to Pokémon the Gameboy game, the card game or the TV show, the rise of Pokémon GO seemed to come out of the blue.
Less than 24-hours after I’d first heard of the game, in a country where it hasn’t even officially been released, I was spotting people playing it everywhere.
The company behind the game, Niantic, also seems to have almost come out of nowhere—going from virtual unknown to the center of the zeitgeist in just a couple days.
But, like most things that seem to come out of nowhere, there’s been plenty of building behind the scenes.
Niantic, formerly Niantic Labs, was founded as an internal startup at Google by John Hankes in 2010. It was spun-out as an independent company in 2015.
Hankes seems to have a strong interest in connecting geography and technology. He was the founder of Keyhole, the company that developed the technology behind Google Earth. That company received an investment from In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital fund.
In 2004, Keyhole was acquired by Google and Hankes became the vice-president of product management for the company’s “Geo” division, which includes Google Earth, Maps and Street View.
From the beginning, it was focused on building location-focused apps that connect directly with the real world.
Niantic’s first product was Field Trip, an app that sends users push notifications with information about nearby places. The idea, was to “use information technologies to enhance your experience with the real world without taking you out of the real world,” Hankes told architecture and design magazine Dezeen in 2012.
“When people pull out their phones and begin interacting with an application they’re basically pulling themselves into this bubble and putting up a wall between themselves and the real world around them. So it can take on this negative, anti-social aspect whenever you’re using smartphones and the internet,” the magazine quotes him saying.
Field Trip gained some attention but didn’t quite breakthrough to the mainstream.
Niantic’s next effort, an augmented reality game called Ingress, incorporated a science fiction setting and a storyline, which unfolded in the game app as well as in tie-in comic books and YouTube videos.
Many of the seeds for Pokémon GO seem to have been planted here. It was used to test whether players would interact in the real world while playing the game and many of the “portals” form Ingress have become locations in Pokémon GO.
In fact, Hankes has said Niantic is making a platform for location-based augmented reality games.
“I think that with games that involve location, I think the time is right,” Hankes said in a video interview with PocketGamer. “People have the right hardware and I think we’re learned enough about how to make that experience that we’re going to sees some great compelling games that involve movement and location.’