If you remember, in May 2018, Google showed off an augmented reality version of Google Maps during the Google I/O 2018 keynote. The feature was only described as a “what if” experiment and “How [augmented reality] could look in Google Maps”—it wasn’t given a firm release date. Over the weekend, The Wall Street Journal got to try a real working version of this concept, and, while there still isn’t a release date, it sounds like Augmented Reality Google Maps is moving from “What if?” to an actual product.
The Journal was given a Google Pixel 3 XL with an “alpha” version of Google Maps to test. Just like what was shown at Google I/O, the new feature augmented the 2D, GPS-and-compass-powered map system with a 3D, augmented reality camera overlay and a camera-based positioning system. Basically, you hold your phone up, and it displays a camera feed with directions overlaid over it.
The feature seemed aimed at solving a lot of pain points that pop up when using Google Maps in a big city. The densely packed points-of-interest means GPS isn’t really accurate enough for getting around, especially when you consider GPS doesn’t work well indoors, or underground, or when you’re surrounded by tall buildings, and it can take several minutes to reach full accuracy when stepping outside. Smartphone compasses are also, generally, terrible when you are standing still and need to figure out which direction to start walking.
This new version of Google Maps augments the GPS and compass with a precise orientation determined by the phone’s camera. Just like how a human would orient themselves, the Google Maps AR camera would look at buildings and landmarks, and from the camera feed, determine exactly where you are and which direction you’re facing. Back at Google I/O, this was called “VPS,” or “Visual Positioning system.”
A project like this is leveraging a lot of Google’s strengths. The hyper-detailed Google Maps data gives you accurate placement of stores, down to which side of the street an address is on and where on the block the building is located. Google’s computer vision algorithms and cloud computing can take your camera feed and compare it to a vast collection of street view imagery to know where you are and which direction you’re facing. Directions and business information can all be overlayed on a camera feed, in 3D, thanks to Google’s ARCore augmented reality toolkit.
WSJ says the feature is launched via a new “Start AR” button, and after “a few seconds” the camera was able to nail down a location with “remarkable precision.”
Google notes that it isn’t done with the design yet, and the AR version of Google Maps is still being tweaked. Again, there’s also no release date. The main takeaway here is that Google hasn’t forgotten about AR Google Maps and is planning to bring it to market eventually. As we’ve seen in the past, just because something is shown at Google I/O and gets a great reception doesn’t mean Google will actually build and release it. The most infamous example is Google Photo’s “Object Removal” demo from Google I/O 2017. Google showed off a baseball photo taken through a chain link fence, then algorithmically removed the chain link fence to large cheers from the audience. The feature was described as “coming very soon,” but after the show this feature was forgotten about and never spoken of again.
AR Google Maps is actually going to come out, though. While the Journal couldn’t nail down a real launch date, it did reveal that testing is starting with Google Maps “Local Guides” (people who leave a lot of reviews and work their way up the Google Maps leaderboards). The rest of us will have to wait.
Today, Augmented Reality is almost exclusively used for casual games and tech demos, but Google Maps actually presents a mainstream, useful use case for AR. Translating the flat, 2D map data to the real world looks like it would make walking navigation a lot easier, and using a camera for location could be a real improvement on janky magnetic compasses and GPS’ poor city performance. And yes, some day, when we are all walking around with an augmented reality version of Google Glass, an app like this would be pretty cool.