Even for guys who don’t love tech, the debut of Google Earth was a mind-blowing moment. Most of us remember where we the first time we hovered over our street on a computer. Its sidekick – Google Maps – was just as mind-blowing. We never had to ask for directions again.

The whole thing began with a couple of refugees from the 3D software company Silicon Graphics, who in 2000 showed entrepreneur John Hanke an animated demo that zoomed all the way down from space to the streets of Denver. That discussion started with the idea of a video game but ended with the idea of creating a real 3D map of the world that anyone, anywhere, could interact with.

Realising that the execution of his vision required measured steps, Hanke and software gurus Brian McClendon and Michael T. Jones formed the 3D mapping company Keyhole in 2001. It began selling its mapping services to clients, including the Pentagon. Then CNN gave Keyhole national exposure during the Iraq war by using its technology to simulate flying over Baghdad. That caught the attention of Google, which bought the company in 2004.

Hanke never expected his gig at Google to last; he was too addicted to the energy and creativity of the start-up environment to feel he could stay put for long. But one cool project after another beckoned: Maps, Street View, Google Moon and Google Sky. Six years later, Hanke was leading a division with hundreds of employees, but the administrative struggles were chipping away at his motivation. Eager to return to his inventive roots, he considered leaving the company to work on product development. The folks at Google thought that was a bad idea, so they compromised: they let him create a “start-up” within the company. Hanke pitched an idea, brushed up on his coding skills, and spent six months working on prototypes and building a team, including several veterans from Google Earth and Maps.

The new start-up was named Niantic Labs, after a whaling ship that ran aground in San Francisco during the Gold Rush and later became a store, then a hotel. As the city became developed, the old ship was literally absorbed and covered over by cityscape. You could stand on top of this ship – a stone’s throw from the Transamerica Pyramid – and you wouldn’t even know it. Thus, Niantic’s mission is to alert us to the cool stuff around us. The initiative’s Field Trip app (not available in South Africa) tracks your location and pings you whenever something interesting – a landmark, a great restaurant – comes into view. (Niantic also runs Ingress, a multiplayer sci-fi game that riffs on real-world locations.)

Field Trip for the iPhone and Android is building a strong following, and Niantic recently launched it on Google’s new Internet-augmented eyeglasses, Google Glass. So while Hanke’s initial Google Earth opened up the world but kept us tethered to our desks, the entrepreneur now finds himself at the forefront of augmented reality, which promises to stretch that tether beyond even smartphones. Think only a Googler could pull that off? Not so fast. “Think about what you really want and ask for it,” Hanke says. “If your desires align with the needs of the company, it could end up being a great outcome for everyone.”

* By Richard Sine