I was walking through the city the other day and within one hour, I was approached two times by random people, asking for directions. Both with their phones in their hands, one of them even had Google Maps open. Still, they struggled to orientate themselves. And so did I.
How can it be that an app that’s primary objective is to navigate a user to a destination fails to do so? Especially considering how ‚mature‘ Google Map is.
Let me explain
Maps launched as the default iPhone map app in 2007 and became a standalone app with iOS 6. That’s over 12 years ago. So how can it be that it still struggles to do the one job it’s supposed to do? Software is hard. And in-car navigation was apparently a bigger focus.
The main problem with foot-based navigation is actually the inaccuracy of GPS combined with a more or less useless compass in our phones. In big cities, it’s difficult for a phone to get a good GPS signal because you need at least 4 satellites at any given point to calculate your exact position. And even then, GPS has only a 5-10 meter accuracy (depending on the signal). So when you’re driving a car, Google is never quite sure on which lane exactly you are driving and is only guessing based on your velocity, GPS signal and other factors (that’s why sometimes you position seems to float on the Map or Google thinks you took a turn when you instead continued to go straight).
In cities, the GPS signal can also bounce off from buildings or get otherwise interfered, leading to inaccurate calculations. The same goes with the compass, which is distracted by all the metal around us and thereby is unable to precisely determine its position.
Interesting side note:
You may have noticed that Google Maps asks you to turn on your WiFi to enhance location services. That’s weird, right? What does Wifi have to do with your location? Well, when Google sent out their StreetView cars and collected a gigantic database of photos it also created a second database. To store the geographical locations of WiFi networks that they detected while driving. So Google (and other companies that are in the maps business) can calculate your location based on the signal strength of nearby wifi networks, allowing for a more precise result than GPS alone. Crazy, right?
Back to the story.
The first thing you have to do when starting navigation is to start walking in the right direction. But how do you know which is the way to go? To little blue dot in the app isn’t really helpful, is it? So you just start walking and hope it’s the right way.
But no more. Google finally figured out how to help you and it took them an enormous amount of effort. The basic idea is that they combine the data they already have with StreetView imagery and using their image detection software to detect landmarks such as recognizable buildings to determine to the direction you’re currently looking at. For this to work, you have to give Google Maps access to your phone’s camera and in return, they give you an AR view of your surroundings, overlayed with arrows and other UI elements.
The feature was introduced at Google I/O 2018 and is now finally available in Germany. I tried it out today and it works like a charm. I was actually surprised how good it works because I feared the StreetView photos of Hamburg are too old to be useful anymore. But Maps really quickly detected some building and started to project virtual arrows and little dots to follow on my screen.