Google launched a new mode for Maps on Wednesday, designed to give users a more real-world view of where they are going before they even leave. The new immersive view is a kind of Street View in the sky: you can look at a location from above to get a sense of the neighborhood, then drop down to street level to see specific places you might want to reach. Maps overlays its live activity and traffic information, so you get a near-augmented reality look at any park, street corner, or beach you’re looking at.
The images behind Immersive View are all computer generated, a combination of Google’s satellite captures and its Street View snaps. As you go through them, it feels like playing a video game on medium graphics in a real world at precise scale. “We’re able to merge them,” says Liz Reid, vice president of engineering at Google, “so we can actually understand, okay, those are the heights of the buildings. How do you combine that with Street View? How can we combine it with an aerial view to create something that makes you feel like you were there?”
Reid described the feature as offering the massive zoom magic of Google Earth, but at the neighborhood level. And she said that 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 so that it feels quite 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 are coming soon.
While it pushes to make Maps a more vivid 3D experience, it also opens up some of that experience to the app ecosystem. Third-party developers can now leverage Maps’ Live View AR feature, which essentially gives them ultra-accurate real-world location tracking and an AR layer on top. Google is working with developers on apps that help you find a place to park your scooter, or help you navigate stadiums, or just let you play AR games with dragons in the real world.
Google Maps is 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 expands 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.