If you remember, Google showed an augmented reality version of Google Maps in May 2018 during Google I / O Keynote 2018. The feature was described as "what if" experiment and "what [augmented reality] could look like in Google Maps" – no fixed release date was given. At the weekend the Wall Street Journal was able to try out a real working version of this concept, and while there is no release date yet, Augmented Reality sounds like Google Maps of "What if?" to an actual product.
The Journal was given a Google Pixel 3 XL with an "alpha" version of Google Maps for testing. Just like Google I / O, the 2D, GPS and compass-based mapping system has been enhanced with a 3D camera, augmented reality camera overlay and a camera-based positioning system. Basically, you hold up your phone and it displays a camera feed with overlaid directions.
This feature seemed to solve many of the issues that occur when using Google Maps in a large city. The densely packed landmarks mean that GPS is not accurate enough to get around, especially when GPS is not working well indoors or underground, or when surrounded by tall buildings. This may take several minutes to reach full accuracy when you go outside. Smartphone Compasses are also terrible when you need to stand still and figure out which direction to go.
This new version of Google Maps extends GPS and compass by an exact orientation, which is determined by the camera of the phone. Just as a human being would orient themselves, the Google Maps AR camera would look at buildings and landmarks and use the camera feed to pinpoint where you are and in which direction you are looking. At Google I / O, this was called "VPS" or "Visual Positioning System".
A project like this uses many of Google's strengths. The hyper-detailed Google Maps data gives you the exact location of stores, on which street side an address is located and where the building is located in the block. Google's computer vision algorithms and cloud computing can compare your camera feed with a huge collection of street view images to know where you are and which direction you are looking. Google's ARCore Augmented Reality Toolkit can display instructions and business information in a 3D camera feed.
WSJ states that the feature will start with a new "Start AR" button followed by "a few seconds" The camera was able to locate a location with "remarkable precision."
Google notes that the design has not yet been finalized and the AR version of Google Maps is still being optimized ̵
AR Google Maps will actually appear. While the Journal was unable to set a real launch date, it showed that testing with Google Maps started "Local Guides" (people who leave many ratings and work their way up the Google Maps leaderboards). The rest of us will have to wait.
Today, augmented reality is used almost exclusively for casual and tech demos, but Google Maps actually provides a useful mainstream use case for AR. Transferring 2D flat map data to the real world looks like it would make navigating while walking a lot easier. Using a camera as a location could be a real improvement on Janky's magnetic compass and the poor city performance of GPS. And yes, one day, when we all walk around with an augmented reality version of Google Glass, such an app would be pretty cool.