How Google is Turning Maps Into Virtual Reality

Wednesday Jun 12th 2013 by Mike Elgan
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The Waze acquisition could bring more user-generated data to Google Maps.

Why did Google, the company that already has the best maps product and the most users, spend a billion dollars to buy a tiny maps startup called Waze that has a fraction of the users ?

Why would mighty Google need Waze’s puny map, app or user base?

The short answer is that Google didn’t buy Waze’s ability to display maps, but its ability to build them.

What Is an Online Map, Anyway?

Online maps aren’t really maps anymore. They’re massive databases of contextual and increasingly social information. And nobody’s database is more massive than Google’s.

The problem is that Google Maps and the information that underlies it change constantly. Roads are re-routed. Traffic changes. Companies go out of business, and new ones replace them. And Maps can always benefit from more and better information.

How does a map company keep up with all these changes?

Google unveiled a totally new version of Maps last month. Instead of Maps being about maps, it has become a platform capable of evolving into a virtual reality version of the real world.

The visible part of Maps is augmented by invisible data. For instance, it includes information about posted speed limits, which streets are one-way and where the stops signs are. These kinds of data are vital for accurate turn-by-turn directions, estimating trip times and other uses.

Google updates this data constantly, so every day Google Maps gets more accurate and useable.

The data comes from a wide variety of sources, including Street View cars, which take pictures of roads, trails and even the inside of businesses.

Street View cars capture photos of instructional signs, and the data on those signs are scanned and added to the invisible part of the map. Google even uses “logo matching” to identify the locations of businesses based on Street View photos.

The Redesign

Google’s new Maps is far more data driven. For example, when you click on a location in the standard Maps view now, every road that can possibly connect to that location is instantly highlighted and the street names are made larger.

They replaced the “Satellite” view with Google Earth, which no longer requires a browser plug-in. Earth is completely integrated into Maps now.

Zooming in on Earth view reveals that the surface of the planet is now 3D. But unlike old 3D features in Maps, the objects are created based on harvested data. In the old version of Maps and the current version of some Maps competitors, such as Apple Maps, the 3D feature involves 3D renderings of buildings placed on a 2D map surface. But in Google’s new Earth view, not just buildings but every tree, every hedge, every parked car is rendered—anything actually there is rendered in three dimensions.

Right now, it looks weird, as if everything is melted together. That’s what low resolution looks like—a tree is just a tree-colored blob. Homes melt together with their lawns.

But what’s happening is that Google has flipped a switch to a data-driven Maps platform that will constantly be updated with ever more detail. Those low-rez blobs we see today will, over time, sharpen, and the details will fill in. This process of increasing the resolution will never stop.

As the detail is filled in and Google continues to refine and improve maps, we’ll get to the point where a user will be able to put on virtual reality glasses, such as Oculus Rift, and walk around in a virtual world that mirrors the real one. Users will be able to walk down the virtual street, walk through virtual doors and look around inside virtual businesses. Once inside, they may even be able to see and buy virtual or actual products.

The experience of Google Maps virtual reality will be very similar to the experience of walking around in the real world wearing Google Glass. What you see through your own eyes will be real, of course, but the data that augments that reality will be Google Maps data.

Maps will become more like reality, and reality will become more like Maps.

Like Google Search, Google Maps will be increasingly personalized based on social and other contextual information. Places you’ve reviewed in the Local feature of Google+ and places your family and friends have discussed online or in Gmail may be emphasized in Maps for you but not others.

Google Maps is All About User Input

Google has increased the number of ways in which everyday users can improve and contribute to Maps data. For example, reviews of restaurants, hotels and other services on Google+ Local appear in Maps.

People can take photo sphere pictures with their phones and upload them into Maps. That enables anyone to click on a user-generated photo sphere and look around in 360 degrees.

The Maps view itself offers a “Report a data problem” feature in which anyone can alert Google to something that needs to be corrected.

Google also uses a Map Maker tool where people can add information about local streets and businesses.

But Google’s acquisition of Waze this week brings the ability of users to upload data into Google to a new level.

Why Waze?

Waze is a five-year-old Israel-based startup. Google did not disclose the acquisition terms, but early reports suggest a price well over one billion dollars. Both Facebook and Apple tried unsuccessfully to buy it.

Waze is a free, ad-supported smartphone app. It’s believed to have somewhere between 20 million and 50 million users worldwide.

Waze gives users directions, including turn-by-turn directions. But it also tells you what’s going on with the traffic and other real-time facts you might care about. It gets this information from other users.

For example, the Waze app constantly monitors the speed of your phone and thereby the speed of your car. When many cars are going 15 miles an hour on one stretch of freeway, Waze displays that information to other drivers.

There is also an opportunity for Waze users to update real-time information manually, for example accidents, the location of police cars and corrected road and address information.

Although Google said Waze would remain independent, it’s likely that both Waze data and Waze infrastructure for social reporting might be baked into Google Maps. In the future, the mobile social aspects could be folded into Google+.

For example, as you’re looking at Maps, traffic accidents will appear on the maps seconds after they’ve happened and the slowing traffic reported with close to exact traffic speeds. Gas prices will be updated in real-time as they change. Road closures and detours will cause your turn-by-turn directions to adjust in real time.

You’ll even be able to start instantly chatting with other people stuck in the same traffic jam.

Ultimately, however, Waze will make Google Maps a two-way street, as it were. Simply using Maps with a smartphone—and simply using Android, Google+, Google+ Local and many other Google products—will feed Google’s hungry new Maps platform with more real-time data, improving the information for everybody.

We don’t know where this new Maps concept will go. But we know the direction it’s going in—Maps is becoming a largely user-generated, 3D, virtual reality simulation of the real world.

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