When was the last time you looked at a physical map? In my case, never. At least in the sense of using it for its intended purpose. 1d mapping has been replaced by 2d map applications. And it has successfully changed the way anyone gets around.
When I drive anywhere unfamiliar–or even familiar–I enter the address into Apple’s Maps with complete, undoubted trust. When I explore a city, I check Maps to be sure that I’m in the neighborhood of my destination (which is usually a Thai restaurant I’ve yet to try). Although, in both cases, Maps ultimately leads me to the correct location, the trouble occurs at the beginning. Which way do I start walking first? Up this street or down this street? Should I be on the other side of the road? That experience, as I am sure we can all relate to, is what could be considered as the ‘blue dot problem.’ Google is working on a solution.
In May of 2018, at the annual Google I/O event, executives and developers announced its series of new features, one of which is a relaunch of Google Maps. This update is working on a seamless, augmented reality-infused version of Google Maps. Watch this short video below to hear from a Google executive herself on what this could look like.
As shown, navigation would no longer be limited to simple directions supplemented by a map of white and green shapes. Instead, by using VPS (Visual Mapping System) over traditional GPS, Google Maps could offer a real time, interactive walking navigation, moving the technology again, this time from 2d to 3d.
Now, over 8 months later, development is taking shape through testing and experimentation by few Local Guides, who are Google’s most dedicated and supportive users. David Pierce from The Wall Street Journal is one who has been personally testing this new version, and he documents his experience in his most recent article. He writes, “Down the street a phone booth-size red pin marked my destination. It was as if Maps had drawn my directions onto the real world, though nobody else could see them.” Rachel Inman, Google executive and project manager for this AR-focused development, describes this feature as for the moments like, ‘I’m getting off the subway, where do I go first?’
Google’s plans are clearly impressive, unique, and will ultimately alter the way users interact with maps overall. However, what is most impressive and surprisingly subtle is Google’s ability to be the first to transition AR from a cool new gaming tool to a useful, accessible, and daily feature for the normal person. They’ve made AR for the woman rushing to make her meeting. For the man looking for a place to grab a quick lunch. For the traveler looking for a decently rated, nearby hostel.
This is a stark contrast from the range of users and interest in AR prior to Google’s announcement. The best example of AR’s former success is Pokémon GO. This global app launched in 2016 with record-breaking statistics, including the most downloaded app within first month of release and fastest app to earn over 100 million dollars (Forbes). As a mini-experiment, I searched Pokémon GO on Google. Within .57, there were approximately 443 million results, 57 million of which were videos alone, showing just how dominant and widespread this game has become despite its decline over the past couple of years. Biologist and author JV Chamary of Forbes Magazine writes, “Pokémon GO is the world’s most important game.” If that does not speak to the nature of AR, I don’t know what will.
The implications of AR have often been seen as negative: more screen time, limiting social communication, and privacy concerns. Pokémon GO trumped those concerns with promoting physical activity, encouraging exploration, and prompting cognitive training.
Although used in an entirely new way, the AR behind Google’s new feature has similarly raised concerns as well. Will more traffic accidents occur due to people’s attention being focused on seeing through their phone instead of examining the surroundings themselves? Will this only be available for outside ‘street view,’ or is someone’s apartment complex susceptible to this technology? Is this even necessary or particularly useful without the supplement of AR glasses? Will using this feature drain my battery? How will Google Maps navigate the user through known less-secure neighborhoods?
While I am sure Google is working towards answering these questions via R&D, I can guess that these are also questions that will be more thoroughly addressed through the user data and reviews. That being said, I am excited to see what this new world will look like–literally. The possibility of AR entering daily life at first seems intimidating and a little unwelcome, especially in a culture that is now promoting ‘being present’ above all else. However, if done right, Google could forever change the way a person lives. AR has the power to positively transform how we see the world, reimagining discovery, exploration, and learning all at the same time.