How Google's AR Maps API can change the face of more than just AR gaming

At the 2018 Games Developer Conference, Google spoke about ARCore and its newly announced Google Maps API for game developers. What started with examples of how games could be played in the real world, unveiled a deeper level of possibility that I'm excited to see in the future.

When you think about a Google Maps API, I'm sure you're thinking, "Pokémon GO." That's what I first thought. But that only scratches the surface of what this new developer cool can do. It's more than just a way to map an environment and plant augmented reality characters into it. It has the ability to literally change the environment around us ... in real time ... with relative real-world changes.

Google will provide game developers with four key features for their games. First, access to Google's massive Maps data (which is updated approximately 25 million times per day), access to Unity's physics engine so they can create unique graphics with the data they have from Maps, information about real-world landmarks and points-of-interest so they can create special play around those areas, and the ability to deliver this information on a global scale, even in countries where game developers have never been.

How access to Google's massive mapping database can make games meticulously detailed

Google has spent more than a decade gathering and organizing detailed location information about nearly every nook and cranny of the populated world. They've got a plethora of pre-made maps. Sure, it's cool when a game developer creates a previously non-existent world, but the Google API will make it possible for game developers to use maps that already exist. Very detailed maps of streets, buildings, street carts, trees, everything. And, this mapping data is constantly being updated with new information, like new buildings or streets that have closed. Games don't usually have this level of detail, regularly adjusted for the changing environment.

Using the Unity engine, game makers can change what a city looks like without changing the core details that already exist. Maybe you want candy canes where street lights should be. Using the Google Maps API, street lights are already in real-world, properly-distanced plots on the map and all you'd have to do is make them look like candy canes instead using the Unity physics engine.

A candy-coated New York City? I'll bite!

Game developers can alter what the real world looks like by using Unity's physics engine. The SDK includes minor things like building caps or changes to what appears in an open field, as well as, night and day cycles for a realistic real-time experience and the ability to completely change the layout of structures around us.

Every building, street sign, tree, whatever, can be designed to look a different way, including taller, shorter, or even removed from the map entirely.

When demonstrating the possibilities of the Google API, there is an example of a candy theme overlay in which New York City looks like it jumped off the Candy Land game board. Every building has sugar coated decorations and additional items are rendered in the form of candy carts, gummy bears, and jelly rainbows.

This is just one example of the way Google Maps, Unity, and game developers' imaginations can unlock a new way to view the world around us.

In-game assets lead you to a real-world point-of interest

Google is also including assets that can be automatically mapped to points of interest in the real world. It's not unlike how Niantic mapped locations for gyms and PokéStops, but game developers don't have to do any of the work because Google already did, and has been for more than a decade. The data is already there waiting for developers to implement into their own games.

For example, using the Unity SDK, developers can tick a box for, say, restaurants and put a candy cart where ever a restaurant exists in real life.

This goes for all sorts of landmarks, businesses, and points of interest. Filter the type of location you want to add a special item to and everywhere they exists in that city is identified on the map for you.

It makes it incredibly easy for developers to add unique experiences based on real locations.

But what about NOT the real world?

What does all of this mean? It means the potential for some seriously good looking games with incredibly detailed environments that won't use a massive amount of space or be too intense for mobile devices. Imagine your favorite open-world games on consoles. Now imagine it on your iPhone. Google Maps, combined with Unity has the potential to create an immersive open-world environment that doesn't lag or overheat your device.

Which got me thinking about other possibilities the combination of Google Maps and Unity could have for the gaming world outside of just augmented reality.

It doesn't have to be AR. Google has successfully proven that we can take virtual trips around the world using Google Street View Treks. It stands to reason that developers could create immersive, meticulously mapped games that you can play right on your Mac or PC.

It might not seem as impressive as looking at your local landmarks and seeing a dragon flying over head, but it could make it much easier for developers to create realistic worlds in games simply because they're using real-world maps.

PC games can benefit hugely from the same Google Maps API and Unity graphics engine to create epic game maps that players can explore in-depth without having to physically be in a specific city to experience it.

Going beyond AR

I'm excited to see what the Google Maps API can do for the future of augmented reality and gaming in real-world environments, but I'm also hoping this can be used for games that don't require players to actually leave the house in order to experience an immersive, meticulously detailed world. I'm hoping for a complete shake-up of stay-put gaming, too.

Lory Gil

Lory is a renaissance woman, writing news, reviews, and how-to guides for iMore. She also fancies herself a bit of a rock star in her town and spends too much time reading comic books.  If she's not typing away at her keyboard, you can probably find her at Disneyland or watching Star Wars (or both).