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Google's latest Maps experiment turns the Himalayas into a 3D playground

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One of the joys of Google's wealth of 3D mapping data is being able to explore far-flung locations from the comfort of your laptop. And the company's latest experiment takes that idea a step further: what if you could turn those maps into interactive, educational playgrounds?

The result is a new Android app called Verne: The Himalayas. It's sort of like a cross between a really simple mobile game and a 3D map of the world's highest mountain range. You control an adorable, rotund yeti and can wander around the mountains as if you were playing a third-person adventure game. (It's actually a 500-foot-tall giant, but it looks so cute and tiny on your phone's screen.) There's a virtual D-pad for handling movement, and a single button that lets you jump and interact with objects when you get close enough to them.

There's no set path, so you can explore at your own pace, and as you do you'll come across things like a ceremonial Tibetan horn you can play a tune on, or an umbrella that lets you soar into the air to get a bird's-eye view of the mountains. At certain points you can zoom in to a Google Street View perspective to get a closer look at places of interest. All along the trail you'll come across speakers that reel off facts and historical tidbits about the Himalayas, as if you were on a walking tour.

Google bills the app as an experiment, but it's pretty fully featured. It's not exactly an entire history lesson, but in just a half an hour exploring I felt like I learned a bit about the region. And more importantly — since this is an app aimed at kids — it was a fun process. The exploratory nature means I was actually seeking out new places and objects. It's easy to see how the concept could be expanded to other areas: wandering amongst the pyramids, or venturing through the Australian outback, all while controlling some kind of cute critter. Google hasn't announced any such plans, but I'm holding out hope that I can one day learn about the Amazon while controlling a giant monkey frog.

You can check out Verne: The Himalayas for free in Google Play right now.