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Google Demos New Maps Features Ahead of Apple Announcement

With Apple expected to unveil its own 3-D mapping technology next week, Google seems a little nervous.
Credit: Rachel Metz

Is Apple making Google nervous?

It seemed that way at a Google Maps press event held in San Francisco today, where the search giant, which has over a billion monthly active users for its maps products and has long dominated the maps market on mobile devices, showed off new Google Maps features just days ahead of Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday.

Along with other things, Apple is expected to unveil its own 3-D mapping product at that event, supplanting Google Maps on the iPhone. Google’s scheduling of its own event the week before allowed it to highlight upcoming features–such as vastly improved 3-D modeling–it but also made it seem like the company is uneasy about what may be coming next.

At the event, Peter Birch, product manager for Google Earth, showed off new techniques for making 3-D maps, which includes equipping a fleet of planes with custom Google-designed cameras to capture shots from various directions that can then be used to create accurate building and terrain models.

Birch said the planes are flown in a tightly controlled pattern to ensure sufficient overlap in the images and represent large metropolitan areas. He said Google uses a technique called stereo photogrammetry to extract models from the numerous images that are collected.

To illustrate, he showed a map of San Francisco’s City Hall that was reconstructed from images and looked like a big clay model. For each pixel on the model, he explained, Google has to determine the best color and image to match with that point, so they go through their collection and generate a textured 3-D mesh. He zoomed around the surrounding areas of the city, using his fingers to navigate and show how every single building in the neighborhood was completely modeled in 3-D. “We’re trying to create the illusion that you’re flying over the city, almost as if you were in your own personal helicopter,” he said.

The new 3-D features are going to be rolled out to Android and iOS users in the coming weeks, he said. By the end of the year, Google expects to have modeled communities comprised of over 300 million people with this technology, he said.

The company also introduced a feature that will let users download maps on their smart phones that they can then view offline (a more limited version of this currently exists in the Android version of Google Maps). Demonstrating the feature, Rita Chen, a product manager for Google Maps for mobile, selected a portion of a map of London on a mobile device, which she then downloaded. Using it offline, she showed how users who enabled GPS on the phone could still use the location-tracking function. This will be available “soon” for those whose phones run Google’s Android operating software, she said.

Also on the agenda was the introduction of an enormous backpack with a big green, globular camera protruding from the top. Luke Vincent, engineering director for Google’s Street View product, said Google can use it to capture images in remote places like national parks. Once the demos were done, Google opened the floor up for a Q&A session. Not surprisingly, many of the questions centered around the relationship between Google Maps and Apple.

Asked if Google is concerned about competition from Apple in the maps arena, Google Maps and Google Earth vice president Brian McClendon would only say that he is “very proud” of Google Maps services and that the company will continue to make them as widely available as possible.

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