At about 2 a.m. on Dec. 24, Santa Claus will lift off from his village in the North Pole to deliver billions of presents to children around the world within 24 hours—or at least that's Google's projected timetable, based on nine previous years of tracking the jolly elf on his annual rounds with the Google Santa Tracker.
VP of Engineering for Google Maps Brian McClendon, who conceived the project shortly after Google acquired Google Earth predecessor Keyhole in 2004, insists that "of course we don't plan the route, we merely track Santa as he's flying around the world."
But what Google engineers do add to the experience will result in the richest and most interactive Santa Tracker to date. The 2013 project includes a dynamic Santa's Village landing page, an advent calendar that unlocks new animation and mini-games every day in December, and a significantly updated Android app, released Dec. 11. Even a Google Glass app is tentatively in the works. (Can we watch the trip on Glass from Rudolph's perspective? Google won't say.) User numbers aren't public, but Google says it's a heavily used application that is available in 34 languages. On Christmas Eve, users can passively follow Santa on his journey, or zoom in on a location as Santa lands there in the dead of night local time and learn more through linked Wikipedia entries, weather reports, curated Panaromio photos, and more.
"Most of the time the children in Western Europe and the U.S. are awake, Santa is landing in places like China, India, and Southeast Asia and so on...so they're learning about places they might not know much about," says McClendon, who built the first Santa Tracker in 2004 around this educational element. "The goal really is to try to get children excited about geography."
But an internal effect of the Tracker is that it becomes something of a Santa's workshop for Google engineers themselves. As a 20% project—meaning one of the elective projects to which Google employees can choose to devote a fifth of their working hours—the Santa Tracker is an entirely volunteer effort, without a set plan. "At no point has Brian or any product manager sat down and said okay, here's the product, and here are the business objectives and here's how it's going to work," says Andres Ferrate, Google Maps' manager of developer relations who has led the Santa Tracker since last year. "It's usually just very organic, and kind of magical."
For example, McClendon says that the way data has been transmitted with the tracker over the years involved innovating parts of Google Earth, meaning "some open standard was updated based on what we learned from serving Santa."
In addition, the Village and games are built on HTML5, which has become a major component of Chrome that can be showcased through the project. "One of the things the Santa Tracker does is helps us explore all of the different tools and platforms that we have, and share them with people," says McClendon. "It both helps kids and adults understand what's possible in the browser, but it also helps Developer Relations prove out how good the platform is and what the capabilities are. Santa is a great test app that has a huge audience, and then you get to build it again next year in a new and different form."
When Ferrate added the Santa's Village element in 2012, "we just wanted to have someplace for people to come to and really just build anticipation for Christmas. And it sure did," he says. "So this year we decided, in true Google fashion, to continue to push and iterate and make things even greater. We decided to follow this theme of an advent calendar. So that's what you're finding—houses that were frozen over, and now the elves are busy digging them out, so each day a new house is taken out of deep freeze and you can get a different experience." These include a reindeer racing game, an animated scene of elves changing from their street clothes to elf clothes at the airport, and a video of Santa getting the call to return North from his off-season tropical retreat.
Another advancement for this year's Santa Tracker comes courtesy of Chromecast, the device introduced this year that enables content from a Chrome browser or Android device to be displayed on your TV. So in effect, the "lean-back" experience of following the Santa Tracker could replace the traditional video-taped burning Yule log.
"Imagine you're sitting at your house and you've got Chromecast on, and you've got the Santa Tracker running in the background," says Ferrate. "Last year I sat around with my nieces and nephews on Christmas day, and we were all kind of hovering around a laptop. This year is going to be drastically different. We're going to be over at the grandparents' house, big screen TV, everybody's going to be going about their business but still have this really nice experience."
Unless, of course, they're interrupted by work. "One of the Santa Tracker's interesting challenges is that it requires those working on it to be working on Christmas Eve," says McClendon. "It's a big commitment, because with such a heavily used application, there are times when the usage actually has impact on Google's infrastructure." But Ferrate says that everyone rallies, particularly those who have contributed heavily to the effort and are monitoring both the technical aspects and feedback from around the world. "Most of the conversation is around 'check out what this person wrote on Google+.' Just that one sentiment is enough to carry you through the night."