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Google Builds AR for Everywhere From Maps


While much of the AR world looks to Apple and its rumored upcoming VR/AR headset, Google is making some moves of its own. The company is planning a mixed reality partnership with Samsung and Qualcomm, and has already experimented with assistive glasses and holographic telepresence booths. Now, the latest software tools for phones announced Wednesday at Google’s I/O developer conference point to a continuation of a world-layered set of map-assisted augmented reality experiences that could end up arriving well before a new pair of Google-made glasses ever do. 

Google’s new moves come with a bunch of partnerships already underway. Geospatial Creator tools will be supported in Unity and Adobe’s Aero. A location-based Space Invaders game from Taito will map onto streets and buildings. Gap and Mattel are making an augmented-reality Barbie clothing pop-up that layers onto city streets. Quintar, a company that’s already built AR into the PGA Tour app, tested live AR navigation through golf courses at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. Some experimental location-based AR street art using the new tools has already been made in Mexico City, London and LA.

Someone in front of a store holding up a phone to look through a camera

Adobe’s Aero AR creative app is adding Google Maps-enabled location-based AR tools, too.


These moves continue what Google’s planning over the last several years: Google has already started putting AR into its Maps app, and has also announced new immersive Maps features that jump into 3D views of wherever you’re at. But now these 3D AR Maps capabilities are bleeding over into other apps, too. A new set of creative tools, announced at the Google I/O developer conference, aims to allow more real-world experiences mapped onto specific locations or buildings. 

Other companies have already been doing real-world, location-specific AR games and apps: Think Pokemon Go, but for concerts or sports or games or art. Google experimented with a location-based AR concert last year featuring Gorillaz. Snapchat’s had live concert experiences, and is building more location-based games and filters. Niantic’s virtual AR pet Peridot and its map-based social Campfire app are also blending maps and AR and the real world. Google’s play to make more real-world experiences also ties into some of the hopes for AR sparking retail and marketing efforts, much like Snapchat’s recent moves. But Google’s new moves look to inspire more creators making these apps, and maybe interlink more experiences into a common framework… perhaps for future AR headsets, too.

Pixelated Space Invaders creatures hovering over a real city

Space Invaders is getting a location-based AR game using Google’s location-based features this year.


Maps is getting 3D-ified

Google’s also making its Maps experience more immersive, using 3D-generated renders of major locales to give people a bird’s-eye view of their route. Some of this work started last year with Immersive View — now live in five cities — but the latest updates focus on adding 3D details to your day-to-day travel. 

It uses computer vision and AI to “fuse billions of Street View and aerial images together,” to give an almost VR-like “multidimensional experience” of your route, with information on bike lanes, sidewalks, intersections and parking. You can also adjust the time slider to see how a route will look during different parts of the day, along with air quality information and weather changes. Using AI and historical driving trends data, you’ll also see how many cars may be on the road at any given time, kind of like a Sim City view of the real world. 

Google is opening this tech up to developers. An Aerial View API, which gives birds-eye video or points of interests, can be added to apps. For example, an app could add the ability to see a specific building from an overhead drone-like perspective. Developers could also add photorealistic 3D tiles via the Map Tiles API to add high-res 3D imagery from Google Earth in their apps. 

Screenshots showing overlaid directions and data on top of golf courses

Quintar’s AR overlays on golf courses will also tap into Google’s map-based data.


Google is promising that 3D parts of its Maps and Google Earth platform can be used to build location-based AR in other apps, and that apps could end up having more map awareness to expand how AR shows up. Maybe, at some point, all of these augmented-reality experiences could interlink in one map-based interface. Niantic is already experimenting with this in its own Campfire map app, and Snapchat’s doing something similar with map-based discovery. 

According to Quintar’s co-founder, Sankar Jayaram, who spoke to CNET, the new features could let anyone develop a way to navigate with AR in their own app: a theme park, a concert, a festival, sporting events or an outdoor art museum.

A maps layer for future AR headsets, perhaps?

Google’s AR tools work across Android and iOS, which also gives it the unique possibility of being cross-platform. As more future AR headsets start to arrive — from Apple, Google, Qualcomm and maybe others — this type of map layer could end up being the building block of some sort of new interface. Right now, it’s another incremental Google AR move to add to years of gradual progress on phones, but as more pop-up AR experiences start to appear, maybe it’s also the start of AR feeling more like an invisible layer, much like Google’s 3D animals that have been in Google search, than an app by itself.

One part of AR that always remains up in the air: Will people actually use it? AR apps on phones can often end up being ignored, although face filters and pop-up experiences can sometimes end up going viral, too. It’s possible Apple will be making a similar set of moves using its RealityKit AR tools and its own location-based, Maps-reliant capabilities at WWDC, as it readies an expected headset for 2023 release. And for all we know, much like the iPhone, Apple’s headset might eventually work with Google’s AR tools, too.


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