Google Maps Ups the Ante, Again

Online mapping continues to see a barrage of new feature updates. This is driven by Google’s lead as well as Apple’s escalating challenges to that leading spot. The end result is that mapping sees early-stage-like feature rollouts, which is rare for a product that is somewhat mature and firmly established.

The latest in this feature arms race comes to us from Google. It announced a wide range of functional upgrades across the board. If there’s a theme to extract in these updates, it’s more underlying data and AI-fueled automation to help users both navigate and find local businesses that pair with their needs.

Some of these are new features, some are updates (or geographical expansions) and others are the official launch of features previewed at recent Google events. Let’s take them one at a time… and check out next week’s Localogy Place conference where Google’s Mohit Moondra will expand on all the above.

3 Takeaways from Google I/O

Feature Firehose 

Immersive View

Google Maps’ Immersive View is expanding into routing and navigation. As background, Immersive View is an existing feature that makes Google Maps more dimensional and stylized. Rather than boring overhead maps with color coding and some topography, these maps look more like a video game.

With the expansion to routing, these features are brought to you when you’re trying to get somewhere. With a greater sense of realism in routing and navigation, users can know they’re in the right place and anticipate things like traffic or hectic cityscapes – variables that don’t come through in 2D maps.

This is all made possible by computer vision and AI to stitch billions of Street View and aerial images into 3D models. This week, the feature launches on Android and iOS for major Western European cities as well as Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Tokyo, and others.

Lens in Maps

Google Lens is a promising feature that lets users point their phones at items to identify them. This is an area known as visual search, which joins voice search in Google’s efforts to expand the surface area for search and future-proof its core business. And it’s available for easy access within Google Maps.

To activate it, users can tap the Lens icon in the Maps search bar, then lift their phone to reveal dimensional overlays that signal the locations of nearby businesses. Top business categories that  Google spotlights include ATMs, transit stations, restaurants, coffee shops, and retail stores.

A use case that Google underscores is exiting a subway station and needing to orient oneself in terms of directional understanding and the lay of the land. Previously known as Search with Live View, Lens in Maps is live this week in 50 new cities including A​​ustin, Las Vegas, Rome, São Paulo, and Taipei.

New Map Detail

As noted, Maps are established and mature as a product. But Google is still finding places to add additional graphical detail. The best way to think about this is data layers. There are traffic layers, public transit layers, road condition layers, and business layers (and vertical/category layers within).

Google’s latest updates bring more real-time indications of road conditions, crashes, and traffic jams. These are things that happen quickly so seconds matter when it comes to informing drivers and impacting their smart routing decisions. Google will continue to improve this response time.

Additionally, there’s more graphical map detail for relevant factors. For example, more realistic building colors and textures can help users orient themselves. And on large freeways, there are improved details for things like HOV lanes or multiple lanes that drivers need to cross to safely make their exit.

Range Anxiety Relief

As each day passes, a greater share of the consumer population is driving EVs. And that raises the stakes for the dreaded range anxiety. With that in mind, Google is adding more mapping data/layers that inform EV drivers about charging station details – everything from location to compatibility specs.

These details also include key factors such as charging speed and operational status. The latter has become an issue given that 25 percent of chargers in the U.S. are down at any given time, says Google. All the above will start rolling out globally on iOS and Android and should be a nice utilitarian addition.

It’s also worth noting that charging-station updates will be available in the Places API that lets third-party developers build mapping functionality into their apps. There are several EV charging apps out there, which will either be challenged by Google Maps, or built on its data (if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em).

Artificial Inspiration

In Maps and in core search, Google continues to find ways to be more conversational. Though accelerated by the rise of conversational AI like ChatGPT, this has always been present in Google’s evolutionary path, seen in things like the knowledge graph and one-box answers.

As part of that overall evolution, Google sees itself as a discovery engine in addition to a search engine. Here it wants to inspire things to do, see, and buy locally. To that end, users can type broad characteristics of things they’re looking for, rather than specific business names or categories.

For example, Maps can now handle broad interest-based queries like “animal latte art” or “pumpkin patch with my dog” (examples verbatim from Google). This could also converge with another AI-based initiative from Google: Multisearch. Search results include photos, listings, and mapping/navigation.

Moving Target

So there you have it… the latest round of updates. Expect many more as standards continue to evolve around all of the underlying elements that drive Maps: AI, AR, computer vision, and the moving target of user expectations. We’ll go deeper on all of the above next week at Localogy Place 2023.

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