At an invite-only press event in its San Francisco office, Google today made a few big announcements regarding its ubiquitous mapping and navigation programs, Google Maps and Google Earth. While not everything they showed off is quite ready for the public yet, we do have some initial thoughts on the announced updates.
Offline Google Maps for Mobile
Even though I haven't played with this feature yet, I can already say Offline Maps is going to be hugely useful. Travelers especially should be ecstatic, as they will be able to cache specific areas and boot up Google Maps while traipsing around the globe (without any network connection, mind you). What's more, GPS-enabled devices will still be able to plot your location with a blue dot on the map, even sans network, according to Rita Chen, product manager of Google Maps for mobile. Oh, and the compass will work as well, which should make orienting yourself that much easier. All that said, this is very likely going to change the way we travel.
But not only for travelers, Offline Maps might be a good way to save battery as well. Of course, we'd have to do some testing first, but I'm guessing that pulling up a cached map might be more battery-friendly than accessing one through an active network connection. If that's the case, I can see users caching maps for all of their most frequently visited destinations (storage space permitting, of course).
For those who may not recall, this feature was actually being tested through Google Labs in July of last year. Back then, though, it was called "Download map area," and it limited you to only a 10-mile radius. Also, it only stored the base map tiles and landmarks on the map, which meant all of Google Maps' other features still required a data connection.
For me, this raises a few questions regarding this newest iteration of downloadable maps. For instance, what are the limitations of Offline Maps? Will offline navigation be available? Also, does the feature cache local data, like the newly incorporated Zagat reviews? Will there be a setting to have it do so, perhaps? We'll find out in the coming weeks, when the offline maps feature is expected to be available to Android users.
Google Street View Trekker
Also announced today was quite possibly the nerdiest backpack in existence, Google's Street View Trekker. Cumbersome appearance aside, this bad boy is important. No, it's not going to be available to consumers anytime soon (thank goodness). In fact, its existence isn't even going to add anything new to Google Maps' feature set. Rather, the Google Street View Trekker is important because it will refine Street View coverage even further. A lot further. As Luc Vincent, engineering director of Google Maps, demonstrated, it will make it possible for us to eventually get "Street Views" of undrivable areas like ski trails. Not to mention the countless miles of hiking trails, national parks, and so on.
What's probably more important, though, are all of the alleyways and unpaved paths that are common in developing countries around the world. With an army of Google Street View Trekkers running around, Google's powers of mapping and navigation will very soon be usable by a lot more people.
Google Earth in 3D
And as widely expected, today Google showed off 3D imaging powers. What wasn't exactly expected, though, was that these powers would be available through Google Earth on mobile devices (not Google Maps).
Said to be available for "a few major cities for Android and iOS in the coming weeks," this newfangled 3D functionality allows you to virtually swoop around cityscapes like Iron Man (almost). And it's a lot more detailed (and stunning) than the textured buildings that have graced Google Earth since 2006. To say the least, the advanced 3D-rendering technology that Google demonstrated was impressive, and I, for one, am excited to get my hands on it.
While the 3D views are undoubtedly something to behold, I'm not sure how many people will actually enjoy them on a regular basis at this point. I myself have only used Google Earth on my phone a handful of times. On my tablet, I've used it a bit more. That said, I think this is yet another sign of an imminent convergence of Maps and Earth. From a user-experience perspective, if I'm looking at an area in Google Maps, it doesn't make much sense for me to have to boot up Google Earth in order to get a 3D view of that same area. So, what do you say we just merge these two already?