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Google Maps The Next Dimension

Article by: Mike Barrett
Date: 8 Jun 2012

Earlier this week Google hosted a media event entitled "The Next Dimension of Google Maps". As you can guess from the title Google Maps are moving in a different direction: 3D. Though the presentation was nearly an hour long the content in a nutshell was: offline maps and 3D mapping combined with increased StreetView coverage and indoor mapping.

We were treated to a somewhat in-depth history lesson of the origins of Google Maps from the early days of Keyhole (which we covered way back in 2004 Click here for the article) through to Google Earth and Google Maps. We also got an insight into how the technology for Google StreetView has evolved.

Without going over the existing features lets concentrate on the new functionality:

Google StreetView
Google's StreetView imagery covers a huge area currently, but it is mainly limited to major streets and the road network (hence its name). This is being expanded to cover areas where it is impossible to get into with a mapping van, including Ski Slopes, walking trails and narrow alleys.

Google have developed a number of bespoke mounting systems for their cameras and sensors to allow them to capture this more challenging imagery. The latest is a 140lb (about 70Kg) back pack that will allow data recording where access is only possible on foot.

Another initiative Google have embarked on is indoor data collection, the example given here was providing StreetView capabilities inside museums and galleries.

I am personally a little wary of moving in this direction as it almost removes the need to travel, and for those that do it spoils the excitement of discovery. Been there, seen that takes on a new meaning. The benefit, of course, is that people unable to travel are able to experience the sights of the world.

Indoor Mapping
With the explosion in the ownership of SmartPhones most of which have GPS and all of which feature Google Maps map usage has become more personal and ubiquitous. Maps are being used in a different manner now, in many cases what is around me is more important than how to get from A to B.

Indoor mapping adds and extra dimension to this experience. Whilst we may question the point of having a map of a shopping mall it should be noted that the same questions were raised when SatNavs came along. With good (and current) indoor mapping content it will become simple to get to a shopping centre and go right to the store that you want without having to consult the store directory or wander aimlessly until you find it.

The benefits do not end there of course, imagine being at an exhibition such as CES where the show extends over a number of discrete areas and there are thousands of exhibitors. If they were all geolocated and routable things would be much easier.

Of course to achieve this we need more accurate indoor positioning, and the ability to determine our location indoors and out. This is where the new chipsets and software from CRS come to the fore. The SiRFstarV system can not only position you precisely without GPS signals, but also knows what floor you are on in a building. Check our SiRFstarV article for more details.

Offline Mapping
The inclusion of offline mapping was a big surprise to me as this goes against the grain for Google. Their business model is built entirely around an online environment, so stepping outside that environment was unexpected. Google's revenue comes from online advertising, with offline product adverts are not viable. That said Google are indeed promoting the capabilities of offline mapping. A tool allows you to select the area that you want to use offline and then the map is saved allowing you to interact with the map without incurring any data or roaming costs.

Those astute amongst you may note that you can do that to an extent with Google Maps now just by panning around the area you want to use and then disabling the data connection. The maps will have been saved to a local cache. This works fine until you want to zoom in into a more detailed map when you find that there is no detail and the map becomes pixelated. The offline maps overcome this by saving the selected area at all the different zoom levels. When you zoom in the more detailed map tile is available for display.

Offline mapping requires a little management and organisation, but will open up the use of maps with no additional data costs when you are travelling.

3D Mapping
This brings me to the big news of the presentation: 3D Mapping. We have had discussions about 3D mapping and the usefulness of this in the navigation market. Indeed as long ago as 2009 we interviewed Blom who had pioneered 3D mapping enhancements to existing 2D mapping (see here). From the looks of the Google presentation they are using pretty much the same technology to capture the data, planes with 5 cameras one pointing directly down and the other 4 at the cardinal points. These images are then used to create and texturise the 3D buildings creating the 3D maps.

I am still not convinced about the usefulness of the 3D maps for street navigation, particularly in urban environments where buildings would obscure the route markers. The value of this technology seems to be more applicable to desktop exploration and pedestrian usage models. In this area the additional detail and reality of the maps is a great benefit. It is difficult to see the value proposition for Google for this feature as it must cost a fortune in data collection, processing and distribution with no obvious resultant revenue stream. That said Google has built a very successful business based on technology investment and free distribution of the resultant products.

Ironically during the 3D Mapping demo the Google Earth application on an iPad crashed a number of times before working correctly. The cynic in me must wonder if this was actually deliberate or not, why didn't they demo it on an Android tablet? All the demos on Android devices worked perfectly… Draw your own conclusions!

The Google Presentation Video
For those of you who have an hour to spare you can watch the video on YouTube.

The timing of this media event was interesting coming a few days before the much anticipated Apple World Wide Developers Conference (also in San Francisco) where the rumour mill suggests that Apple will be dropping Google and using their own map data. Maybe this was destined to take some of the glory away from Apple or maybe it is the opening salvo in a new map data enhancement war.

One thing that is noticeably absent from the presentation is the enthusiastic involvement of the audience in contrast to an Apple event. At no point in the presentation was clapping to be heard at any of the announcements, despite the anticipation from the presenters. Also conspicuously absent was the spontaneous gasps and cheers. Then on the other hand this was a presentation to a group of professional media representatives not an gathering of the Apple Fanboys.

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Posted by peterc10 on Sat Jun 09, 2012 10:01 am Reply with quote


Did they give any idea of when this would be rolled out, especially offline maps please?

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Posted by jonrome on Fri Jun 15, 2012 8:02 am Reply with quote

I wonder if Google would do a Pot Hole View. They could start with the roads around my part of Essex which have holes so deep Smart cars are disappearing into them.

Posted by TuppyTrucker on Fri Jun 15, 2012 8:37 am Reply with quote

As with all maps, they are only any use if they are current. So many are not. I'd prefer to see the map suppliers keeping the data up to date and increasing the coverage rather than making 3d maps of places that already have maps.

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