Mercury News interview: John Hanke, vice president and head of Google's Niantic Labs.
Nov 02, 2012 (San Jose Mercury News - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
John Hanke went from running small tech startups to managing products for Google's (GOOG) sprawling Geo division, which includes Google Earth, Maps, Street View and other services. Now he's back with a small startup team -- this time within Google -- that's just released its first product, a smartphone app called Field Trip.
The free Android app uses location-sensing technology and various databases to deliver tidbits of helpful knowledge about a user's immediate surroundings. As a person moves through a city or neighborhood, the app will automatically serve up blurbs on local history, point out landmarks, recommend restaurants or give tips on nearby shopping.
Field Trip is an example of "ubiquitous computing," which Google and other tech companies are increasingly exploring. In a recent conversation, Hanke explained why he's interested in that concept and why his new team at Google is called Niantic Labs, after a whaling ship that was abandoned in San Francisco when its crew joined the 1849 gold rush. The ship was converted to a hotel that later burned; remnants have been found in the filled-in bay land of the city's Financial District.
The following was edited for length and clarity.
Q: What is ubiquitous computing, and why does it appeal to
A: This idea has been around for 20 years or more. (Computer scientist) Mark Weiser coined the phrase at Xerox PARC. The idea is that computing devices will disappear into the background and what you're left with is the benefit of computing, which is information and activities.
I'm really interested in enhancing people's experience when they're not in front of their desk, but when they're out in the world. Even though it's possible to do a lot of things with your phone today, often that has the effect of pulling you into a bubble, instead of enhancing your experience.
When you're out walking with your family, you're not going to pause every 20 feet and do a Google search. So the notion is that you can have this process that runs in the background that knows something about where you are, and about your interests. It can proactively offer up information that can help you have a richer experience but in a way that's seamless and doesn't interrupt the flow of your activity.
Q: So you're trying to eliminate the mechanical interface
A: Yeah. When Field Trip pops up on your phone, you don't have to unlock the phone. A chime plays and it shows a card with very clear text. And to take it a step further, if you have a headset or Bluetooth, it will read the card to you.
That's kind of a new frontier -- figuring out when it's appropriate to have your applications proactively talk to you. It's not for everybody, but I love it. You can have the complete experience without ever removing the phone from your pocket.
Q: What are the obstacles to wider applications of this concept
A: One is the "Miss Manners" of what's appropriate: How can we supply what users find helpful, and how do we conform to the edges where people don't want the interruption And technically, it's things like how are you going to deal with the constraints of battery and data usage and so on.
We use GPS and cellular signals (to determine location). GPS is more power-intensive, so there are cases where we're going to rely on triangulation from radio towers and Wi-Fi base stations. Part of the work we're doing is learning about and designing a system that balances accuracy and power.
Q: What if people don't want their device to know where they are all the time
A: Obviously, it's a choice to use the app or not. You can turn it off when you want to. And Google gives you the opportunity to manage your services and delete your information. Personally, I think users are getting comfortable and are interested in having their devices and Web services working for them.
Q: So what's the broader mission for Niantic Labs
A: The group was started to explore the intersection of "geo" and location and mobile, with an eye toward things like ubiquitous computing. I had come in with Keyhole (a digital mapping and imaging startup that was acquired by Google) and helped to grow that group inside Google over several years. In my spare time I was thinking about what we could do with that information in a mobile context: What kinds of apps could we build on this infrastructure
Q: Why did you pick the name
A: I was interested in this idea of peeling back the layers of the world. I stumbled across the story of Gold Rush-era ships and how the Niantic was reused as a hotel and a brothel and now it's at the foot of the Transamerica Building, buried in the sediment. So the metaphor was the hidden stories: The knowledge exists; it's just not always available to us when it could be of benefit.
Q: You led a large organization at Google. I understand you were thinking about leaving to do another startup, but instead you were persuaded to do this
A: I really wanted to be more directly involved in product development and the creation process. When organizational size and layers of management come into play, it's harder to directly influence what you're working on. So I talked with my colleagues at Google and they said, "We'd like to find a way for you to do this inside Google."
Niantic is able to move pretty autonomously and quickly, but we're still able to still tap into other groups at the company and to build on the relationships and data and infrastructure that we have at Google. So it's a great combination.
Contact Brandon Bailey at 408-920-5022; follow him at Twitter.com/BrandonBailey.
Job: Vice president and head of Google's Niantic Labs
Education: Bachelor's degree, University of Texas, Austin, 1989; MBA, UC Berkeley, 1996
Career: U.S. State Department Foreign Service in Burma; co-founded three tech startups (Archetype Interactive, Big Network and Keyhole); joined Google when it bought Keyhole and became vice president of product management for Google's Geo division; has led the Niantic team since last year
Family: Married, three children.
Five things to know about John Hanke:
1. He keeps a poster of "Conan the Barbarian" in his office because he grew up in Cross Plains, Texas, the home of Conan creator Robert E. Howard.
2. A self-taught programmer, he began coding in junior high school.
3. His first two startups created online games: Archetype Interactive developed a massively multiplayer role-playing game called Meridian 59; Big Network developed casual games like chess and checkers.
4. A third startup, Keyhole, developed satellite and aerial mapping technology. It was funded in part by the CIA's venture capital arm before it was acquired by Google and became Google Earth.
5. He's an avid bicyclist.
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