Technology & Science

Google to add 3D cities, remote hiking areas to maps

Google is adding more 3D capability and several other new features to its digital maps in hopes of making them more convenient, comprehensive and compelling as it braces for a loss in traffic to Apple, which is rumoured to soon be launching its own mapping service.
A screen grab from a YouTube video showing off Google's new 3D imagery of entire cities. San Francisco will be the first city to get the full 3D treatment. (Google Inc.)

Google's digital mapping service will get several new features in hopes of becoming more convenient, comprehensive and compelling as it braces for a potential loss in traffic from Apple's hot-selling mobile devices.

Wednesday's preview of the mapping service's coming attractions seemed timed to blunt the blow from the loss of a prized perch as the built-in navigation service on Apple's iPhone and iPad.

Apple Inc. intends to end its five-year partnership with Google's mobile maps next week when it will unveil its own service, according to recent reports in the Wall Street Journal and the technology blog 9to5 Mac.

Brian McClendon, a Google Inc. vice-president who oversees the mapping service, wouldn't directly address reporters' questions about the possible Apple setback.

"We will continue to make Google Maps available as widely as possible," he said.

Apple Inc. spokeswoman Trudy Muller declined comment Wednesday.

Apple vs Google rivalry continues

If Apple ousts Google Maps from the prominent spot on the iPhone and iPad, it would be the latest fissure between two former allies.

Their relationship has been degenerating into a bitter rivalry since Google's 2008 release of Android to compete the iPhone. Since then, both companies have increasingly been encroaching on each other's turf.

A three-dimensional view of the Cliff House in San Francisco on Google Earth. (Google/Associated Press)

Processing the mobile mapping requests from users of Apple's devices has provided Google with valuable insights into people's whereabouts and preferences. That, in turn, has helped Google sell more ads to local businesses.

None of the new features touted Wednesday by Google will be available for at least several more weeks. The upcoming options include maps that can be downloaded on mobile devices for offline access and more three-dimensional imagery -- the latter coming from Google's own fleet of planes.

Google devoted much of Wednesday's presentation to a dissertation on all the technological wizardry that it has poured into its maps during the past seven years. The service now attracts more than one billion users around the world.

Without directly saying so, Google seemed to be trying to convey how difficult it will be for Apple or any other newcomer to build maps that include as many useful tools.

Besides providing 42 million kilometres of driving directions, Google's maps now include imagery of most of the world's neighbourhoods.

McClendon bragged that 75 per cent of the global population can now call up a high-resolution image of their home on Google's maps, up from 37 per cent six years ago.

Grand Canyon and other remote areas added

Google also has traversed eight million kilometres to take ground-level photos of communities for its Street View feature. The company has raised privacy concerns by posting photographs that include people in unflattering situations and, at one point, including equipment that vacuumed up personal emails sent over wireless networks that weren't protected with a password.

Google plans to embellish its maps with even more photos from remote areas, such as hiking trails in the Grand Canyon, with new equipment showcased Wednesday. The photos will be taken from specially designed equipment attached to a hiker's backpack. This gear will supplement photo-snapping bicycles that Google already has been dispatching to areas that can't be easily accessed by cars.

Google dispatched hikers to remote areas such as the Grand Canyon, above, to take photographs for its new Street View Trekker feature. (Carson Walker/File/Associated Press)

The new hiker-friendly Street View feature will be called Street View Trekker.

The company also disclosed that its planes will photograph swaths of major cities to conjure more realistic three-dimensional views of metropolitan landscapes in the Google Earth version of its maps. The photos taken by the planes are automatically converted into 3D replicas using technology that Google developed for the project.

San Francisco will be one of the first cities to feature the more vivid 3D imagery. Google didn't identify other cities on its 3D list, but said the improvements will span communities with a combined population of about 300 million.

"We are trying to create magic here," said Peter Birch, a Google Earth product manager. "We are trying to create the illusion that you are flying over the city, almost as if you are in your own personal helicopter."

The option to download mobile maps for specific cities so they can be reviewed offline later initially will only be available on smartphones and tablet computers running on Google's Android software.

Google's maps have typically offered more tools on Android devices, including turn-by-turn directions spoken aloud. According to published reports, the bias contributed to Apple's decision to try to come up with a better alternative for its mobile platform.