Google launched a new mode for Maps on Wednesday, designed to give users a more realistic look at the places they’re going before they even go. The new immersive display is a kind of Street View in the sky: you can look over a location from above to get a sense of the neighborhood, then go down to street level to see the specific spots you might want to get to. Maps overlay live crowds and traffic, giving you a quasi-augmented reality look at every park, street corner or beach spot you look at.
The images behind Immersive View are all computer generated, a combination of Google’s satellite images and Street View images. As you move through it, it’s like playing a video game on medium graphics in a precisely scaled real world. “We can fuse those together,” said Liz Reid, VP of Engineering at Google, “so we can really understand, okay, these are the heights of the buildings. How do we combine that with Street View? How do we combine it with aerial photography to make something? make it feel a lot more like you were there?”
Reid described the feature as the magic of Google Earth’s massive zoom, but at the neighborhood level. And she said Google has been working on it for a while. “It’s something where we had demos years ago, and it was like, ‘oh, here’s the thing,’ but it didn’t really work. Now the technology has come a long way to make it feel pretty natural.”
Immersive View works on most devices, Reid said, but so far only works in a few neighborhoods in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, London and Tokyo. More coming soon.
While it strives to make Maps a more live, 3D experience, it also opens up some of that experience to the app ecosystem. Third-party developers can now take advantage of Maps’ Live View AR feature, essentially giving them super-accurate real-world location tracking and an AR layer on top. Google is working with developers on apps that will help you find a place to park your scooter, help you navigate stadiums, or just let you play AR games with dragons in the real world.
Google Maps is really no longer just an app for getting from place to place. It’s increasingly turning into a digitized version of the real world, which could have huge implications as AR gets bigger and Google shifts its focus from crawling the web to crawling the Earth. And, with Immersive View in particular, it’s starting to become apparent just how much Google can do with all the data it has.