On March 14, Google announced a new tool that makes it possible for developers to turn real-world Google Maps locations into fantasy settings via augmented reality. A new API will transform your local coffee shop or noodle hangout into “a medieval fantasy, a bubble gum candy land, or a zombie-infested post-apocalyptic city,” in the words of Clementine Jacoby, product manager, Google Maps APIs, who wrote about the new feature in a blog post announcing the API.
What this announcement means is that Google Maps locations can be transformed into locations for experiences such as scavenger hunts, adventures, and Pokémon GO-style games. As Jacoby wrote, “With Google Maps’ real-time updates and rich location data, developers can find the best places for playing games, no matter where their players are.”
The gamification of Google Maps is more than a cool story — it’s a glimpse at the future. Google Maps will always be an essential utility for wayfinding. But as the wild success of Pokémon GO demonstrated, technologies such as augmented reality are uncovering another use for location-based information: entertainment.
The Pokémon GO Effect
As I and many other industry practitioners noted, in 2016, Pokémon GO transformed businesses into magical — but very real — locations for playing the popular game. Many businesses capitalized on the popularity of Pokémon GO with opportunistic location-based marketing — once they realized that the game’s designers had designated their locations to be spots for players to accumulate points through tasks accomplished with augmented reality. For instance, McDonald’s formed a relationship with Niantic (maker of Pokémon GO) whereby players could unlock special rewards at McDonald’s locations in Japan.
Just as importantly, Pokémon GO showed that the multibillion-dollar gaming industry is not confined to gamers glued to computer screens indoors. Gaming can be an outdoor experience that touches multiple locations, tapping into natural behaviors and habits of our mobile society.
Google Shapes the Future
Google is not only reacting to the rise of augmented reality and mobile — it’s shaping those trends through the tools it provides for public use, such as ARCore, its toolkit for developing augmented reality experiences. By making Google Maps a more interactive, augmented reality-based experience, Google has opened the playing field for game developers. For instance, Next Games is developing a Walking Dead: Our World game integrated with real-world locations. NBC Universal and Ludia are doing the same with a Jurassic World Alive game, as is Sony Pictures with a Ghostbusters World game. In all three cases, the augmented reality games have been developed in partnership with Google to build experiences that accurately re-create real-world locations.
And, of course, these experiences will be competing with a formidable foe when Niantic unleashes its highly anticipated Harry Potter: Wizards Unite augmented reality game.
The new API may very well unleash an explosion of location-based games such as scavenger hunts and magical quests that re-imagine more everyday locations the way Pokémon GO did. Brick-and-mortar businesses will participate as they did with Pokémon GO. For example, Starbucks could use the Google API to develop its own augmented-reality based games that turn Starbucks locations into castles or gamified settings from Game of Thrones through a co-brand with HBO.
Teemu Huuhtanen, CEO, Next Games, said, in a statement on the Google blog, “We are excited to partner with Google to provide the most up-to-date and rich location data to enable us to create an immersive experience tied to your location. When new buildings or roads are built, we’ll have access to them in our game. Google Maps’ unrivalled location data, covering world-famous landmarks, businesses and buildings, like the Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower, London Eye, Burj Khalifa, and India Gate, makes exploring your surroundings a breathtaking experience.”
Huuhtanen was among three executives from game developers who contributed statements to the Google announcement. I predict the next time Google announces a development with the Google Maps API, we’ll be hearing from brands.