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Google launches AR world-mapping API, putting it in competition with Niantic

Google launched its ARCore framework back in 2017, but the new geospatial API it will provide developers actually grew from Google’s Maps division.

Google launches AR world-mapping API, putting it in competition with Niantic
[Animation: courtesy of Google]

When Google turned into Alphabet back in 2015, it decided to spin off one of its internal startups, Niantic Labs (later renamed Niantic, Inc.), which had been developing augmented reality experiences. Now, seven years later, Google appears to be going into direct competition with Niantic.

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At its I/O conference Wednesday, Google announced that it’s offering AR developers a virtual map of the world to which developers can anchor AR graphics. This might allow them to make AR experiences that are tied to places in the real world.

Google launched its ARCore framework back in 2017, but the new geospatial API it will provide developers grew from Google’s Maps division.

Google launched a groundbreaking AR feature, called Live View, to Maps back in 2019, which helps users find their way when walking around by using AR to display helpful arrows and directions right on top of the real world as seen through the camera of their smartphone. In order for those arrows and directions to appear against the right real-world places, Google developed a geospatial map of the world using Street View photography and user-provided images. The geospatial map lets the same label appear over a given street or landmark whenever the user points her phone there.

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Now Google is offering ARCore developers the use of that map via an API. “It brings the magic of Live View to developers for free,” VP of Google Maps Miriam Daniel said of the ARCore Geospatial API during a press briefing.

Niantic Labs developed real-world-linked AR experiences, such as its Ingress game and the Field Trip app, while it was still part of the Alphabet family. Niantic continued developing the same themes after leaving Mountain View for its own digs in San Francisco. It would go on to create Pokemon Go, probably the best-known outdoor AR game. Niantic wants developers to use its Lightship development platform, as well as its own geospatial map of the world, to develop their own games and other experiences.

[Animation: courtesy of Google]
Likewise, Google’s new ARCore Geospatial API is meant for game developers. Among the examples shown to developers at I/O was a game created by Japanese wireless company DoCoMo and the creative studio Curiosity, in which the player “fends off virtual dragons with robot companions in front of iconic Tokyo landmarks, like the Tokyo Tower,” as Google describes it.

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[Animation: courtesy of Google]
The non-gaming use cases are a bit more compelling. The shared electric vehicle company Lime is already piloting the API in six cities to let riders’ phones help them find safe places to park their e-bikes and e-scooters. The Aussie telecom Telstra is using the API to help sports fans and concertgoers find their seats, concession stands, and restrooms at Marvel Stadium in Melbourne.

While AR experiences are confined to phones, the stakes in the competition between the various AR development platforms may not be high. But AR glasses are coming (including, likely, some from Google), and if or when consumers take to them, they’ll expect useful and fun AR experiences. AR developers will shift into high gear. Some of the apps they make will require graphics that are persistently and accurately anchored to real-world places. That’s why today might be a memorable day for Google and Niantic.

May the best map win.

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About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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