I can’t tell you how many hours of my childhood have gone into building elaborate forts, spaceships or construction sites with Lego, the block-building toy that captured every kid’s fancy and continues to do so. I really thought that this generation wouldn’t find much appreciation for it until my nephew got his first Lego kit and spent a chunk of his vacation letting his imagination go wild with a bunch of little red bricks and yellow men.
And then I came across Build With Chrome.
It’s a venture between Google and Lego. Google Chrome wanted to show off how you can now view 3D graphics right in the browser. And Lego was celebrating 50 years in Australia with the Lego Festival Of Play. It was a match made in heaven. Needless to say, you’re going to need Chrome and a Google Account to access this app.
The idea was simple: “Choose a plot anywhere in Australia or New Zealand. Build something, publish it on the map, and share it with your friends.” Five minutes and I was hooked. Goodbye, productivity!
Really, the first thing you should do is start browsing around to see what others have already done. The ‘Explore’ button in the top-right corner includes three basic, self-explanatory options: Recent, Most Viewed and My Builds.
Of course, this is all on Google Maps, so you can employ the usual browsing tools to navigate the map and find something you like. You can even zoom in on your city to see what others have been trying to create there.
The usual zoom bar of Maps has been replaced with a ‘2D to 3D’ bar. What this basically does is let you magnify for a certain point in 2D mode, after which it automatically switches you into 3D since Google considers you are close enough to see the Lego creations directly.
Once you are close enough and step into 3D mode, you can view the builds from every direction to check out how the builder did it. There are some wonderful creations already out there, and users have been going wild with messages, complete houses, pyramids and myriad other shapes. It’s the kind of inspiration you need before you start building one of your own.
But there is one problem with this. Google hasn’t included a way for you to pan ‘vertically’ in 3D, which means you only have that one top-down view, albeit from all four directions. It’s good, but given the amount of detail some of the houses have, it would’ve been much nicer to have been able to go to ‘Street View’ and check them out. No reason why that shouldn’t be possible, especially when the option is available when you’re building a house.
And speaking of building houses, that is the crux of the Build With Chrome experience. You can browse through the map and find a plot for yourself, but I’d recommend you let Google handle that for you by just clicking the ‘Build’ button, after which it will automatically find a square plot for you. And yes, if you don’t like it, you can ask the software to find another one.
I wish there was a way here to let you choose the area at least. Not that I live in Australia, but if I was a Melbourne native, I’d like to have been able to tell Google to find me a plot in my city and not Sydney or Canberra.
And now for the fun part! You’re ready to build your house, so let’s get started. The square plot is shown in a 3D view, along with your bricks at the left and a tooltip at the bottom telling you how to navigate the interface.
Left-click places a brick on the plot, while right-click removes it. And you can rely on the ever-faithful Undo hotkeys: Ctrl/Cmd+Z. Zooming in and out is done with the mousewheel or the little Plus and Minus icons. Panning in 360 degrees is possible with the pan tool in the top-right corner. But I personally found it much easier to hold the spacebar and drag the map (by holding down the mouse button) to look around.
On the left, you can choose the kind of brick you want by simply clicking it. The selected brick shows up in the box, along with a colour palette to choose the shade you want. You can also rotate the brick in this tiny window, or use the arrow keys at any time to do the same.
You get a bunch of bricks to start with, including flat tiles and blocks – all in different shapes, including singles, squares, rectangles and more. There are also two types of sloping tiles which will come in handy to build a roof.
The ‘Extras’ tab includes only two special types of bricks right now, a door and a window. Of course, these will really only be useful if you’re building a house, but if you let your creativity go wild, you might even be able to do a lot more with these.
Can Publish, Can’t Save, Can’t Edit
Of course, there are some rules you have to follow when you’re building a structure, such as not making anything inflammatory, offensive, etc. Read all the terms and conditions before you get into it.
After playing round and building your house, just hit ‘Publish’ and you’re good to go!
But there’s one problem with Build With Chrome. If, in the middle of your construction session, you have to go somewhere or close the window for whatever reason, your creation isn’t saved. It definitely seems odd, I think, considering you are already signing into your account, so Google should have a way to save the data in the cloud. But as of now, if you close your window before you publish it, your construction is done.
And you can’t edit it later either, so you better make sure your final product is exactly what you want. I mean, the best part about playing with Lego was that you could build something, show it to others, and take it apart or add stuff to it to make a completely new creation in seconds. Build With Chrome robs that flexibility from Lego.
Still, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience and promises to be a great way to spend some time, whether you’re a kid or an adult.