(Credit: Google)

If you've ever used Google Maps for walking directions then you know how easy it is to get lost. With nothing but a tiny blue dot as your guide, you sometimes aren't even sure which direction to go in. Now, a new test from Google aims to use augmented reality to improve your odds of reaching your destination.

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Announced last year at Google's I/O conference, the Google Maps AR feature will finally start rolling out to a limited number of users, according to "The Wall Street Journal." In an article about his experience testing Google Maps in AR mode, WSJ reporter David Pierce said that the new feature will soon roll out to a few of Google's Local Guides. Those are the intrepid souls who share reviews, photos and feedback about the places they visit. But once Google is satisfied that AR for Maps is ready, then the feature will reach the rest of us.

Augmented reality has been touted as a revolutionary technology that can change the way we view and use the world around us. Though AR has been slow to catch on with consumer products, there are clear benefits, especially with navigation. Trying to match two-dimensional directions on a screen with the three-dimensional world around you can be a challenge. AR overlays directions and pointers on top of the live feed of the real world, thus helping you more easily and clearly navigate your way.

How will the AR feature work in Google Maps? Think of it as Google Maps meets Google Street View.

With the Maps app, users will have an option to turn on AR mode, which then switches to a real-time view of the world around you. As you move your phone around, Maps tries to figure out where you are so it can identify the local streets, buildings and landmarks to display all the visual data collected by Street View. To direct you as you walk, the Maps app flashes big 3D arrows on the screen that show you where to go. Just keep following the arrows to reach your destination.

There are some conditions to using the AR feature in Google Maps First, this is meant strictly for walking directions, not something you'd use behind the wheel. Second, the AR feature is meant to be used sparingly, in part to prevent your phone's battery and your cellular data from getting chewed up too quickly. If you lower your phone, AR mode switches off and returns to the regular map view. And if you stare at the app in AR view for too long, it will suggest that you put your phone down.

Google is also testing and fine-tuning the visuals of the AR feature, says Pierce. One version of the app overlayed a blue path on the ground, but people tried to follow it too closely. In another version, an animated guide named Pizza Man tried to lead you around, but users seemed too fixated on this. Ultimately, Google went with the large arrows because they're obvious but not too distracting. However, even this visual may change.

A Google blog post confirmed the testing with Local Guides and revealed one challenge to surmount before the feature is ready for prime time.

"Although early results are promising, there's significant work to be done," Google said in its blog post. "One outstanding challenge is making this technology work everywhere, in all types of conditions--think late at night, in a snowstorm, or in torrential downpour. To make sure we're building something that's truly useful, we're starting to test this feature with select Local Guides, a small group of Google Maps enthusiasts around the world who we know will offer us the feedback about how this approach can be most helpful."

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  1. Google will start testing the addition of augmented reality in its Maps app.
  2. Initially, the AR feature will be available just for Google's local guides but then will roll out to the general public.

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Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books - "Windows 8 Five Minutes at a Time" and "Teach Yourself VISUALLY LinkedIn."