Niantic founder and chief executive John Hanke has told a story of naming the company after a whaling ship abandoned in San Francisco Harbor by crew members who rushed off to seek fortunes during the famed Gold Rush.

The ship was run aground and converted into a store. The notion of such long-forgotten wrecks prompted Hanke six years ago to use the name Niantic to christen a quest to combine gaming, mobile mapping and augmented reality to playfully reveal virtual things hidden in the real world.

Niantic was a side-project for Hanke at Google, which had bought the entrepreneur's startup Keyhole in 2004 and turned it into the free mapping service Google Earth. Hanke spent years as a top executive in a Google "geo" division producing widely used services such as Maps and Street View.

The gamer wanted to go beyond helping people navigate and have fun with the ability for mobile devices to detect people's locations. The entrepreneur toyed with the idea of launching a new startup, but instead kept Niantic anchored in the Silicon Valley technology powerhouse.

"Staying at Google gave us the advantage of being able to tap into the data we have at (mapping division) Geo and the infrastructure of Google," Hanke was quoted as saying in a 2012 Inc. magazine article. The Niantic project fielded its first offering in 2011 in the form of a mobile application called Fieldtrip that served up information about where smartphone users were or nearby places of interest.

The following year, Niantic launched a game called "Ingress," seen as a predecessor to "Pokemon Go." Ingress, which has been downloaded more than 15 million times, also uses real world surroundings as the game board. Instead of trying to catch cartoon monsters such as iconic Pikachu by targeting them with "Pokeballs," Ingress players battle for control of virtual portals.