Google launched a new model for Google Maps on Wednesday, designed to give users a more real-life look at their places before they even go.
The new Immersive View is a Street View in the sky: you can glance over a location from above to sense the neighborhood and then fall to the street level to catch the specific spots you might desire to hit up.
In addition, maps overlay its live busyness and traffic info, so you get a quasi-augmented reality look at whatever park, street corner, or beach spot you’re looking at.
The images behind Immersive View are all computer-generated, a combination of Google’s satellite captures and its Street View shots. It looks like playing a video game on medium graphics set in a precisely scaled real world as you move through them.
“We’re able to fuse those,” says Liz Reid, a VP of engineering at Google, “so that we can understand, okay, these are the heights of the buildings. How do we combine that with Street View? How do we combine it with an aerial view to make something much more like you were there?”
Reid described the feature as offering the magic of Google Earth’s massive zoom but on a neighborhood level. And she said Google’s been working on it for a while. “It’s a thing where we had demos years ago, and it was like, ‘oh, here’s the thing,’ but it didn’t work. So now the technology includes a long way to make it feel natural.”
Reid said that immersive View works on most devices but only works in a few neighborhoods in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, London, and Tokyo. More are coming soon.
As it pushes on to make Maps a more live, 3D experience, it’s also opening some of that experience to the app ecosystem. Third-party developers can now tap into the Live View AR feature of Maps, which essentially gives them super precise location tracking in the real world and an AR layer on top.
Google’s working with developers on apps that help you find a place to park your scooter, help you navigate stadiums, or 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. Instead, it’s increasingly becoming a digitalized version of the natural world, which could have huge implications as AR gets more prominent and Google shifts its focus from crawling the web to crawling the Earth. And, with Immersive View, in particular, it’s starting to be obvious how much Google can do with all the data it has.
Google Maps satellite sight is a “top-down” or bird’s-eye view; most of the high-resolution imagery of towns is aerial photography taken from aircraft gliding at 800 to 1,500 feet (240 to 460 m), while most additional imagery is from satellites.
Much of the available satellite imagery is three years old and is updated regularly. For example, Google Maps previously used a variant of the Mercator projection and could not accurately show locations around the poles. In August 2018, the desktop rendition of Google Maps was updated to exhibit a 3D globe. It is still possible to hit back to the 2D map in the settings.