The Future Of Maps

In this final chapter, we’ll take a look at some of the exciting new features and applications that will transform online maps – and our everyday lives – in the years to come.

The way that third party developers’ creativity and innovation has combined with Google Maps’s huge amounts of data and powerful algorithms to find countless diverse map applications – not to mention the awe-inspiring software marvel that is Google Earth – must be a sign of things to come in terms of online mapping’s potential for future disruption.

In this final chapter, we’ll take a look at some of the exciting new features and applications that will transform online maps – and our everyday lives – in the years to come.

Today’s limitations

Right now, everything we’ll talk about in this chapter is being held back by three simple limitations in our technological capacity: our ability to acquire data, store it, and process it with computers.

The Internet-of-Things (IoT), more satellite and drone imagery, autonomous drones, and self-driving cars equipped with more and more powerful sensors have already started capturing record amounts of geographic data. Our ability to acquire data will increase in sudden, dramatic steps in the near future if connected sensors flood the market as they are expected to.

Online map data already makes up enormous databases. As such, it’s become a vanguard area for data storage innovation – as we saw in the example of GTFS in Chapter 2: What is Google Maps? The future of online maps depends on our ability to store all of the information being picked up by billions of connected sensors around the world.

Acquiring and storing all of this data is, of course, pretty pointless unless we can do something useful with it. As well as developing more efficient and accurate algorithms, and more thoughtful and helpful applications, we need to keep improving our ability to process data with computers. Quantum computing, solid-state, all-optical systems – whichever promising new computing technology becomes viable first, new online mapping applications will follow close on its heels.

The future trends in this chapter suggest what online mapping could become, if it was no longer held back by limitations in our technological capacity to acquire, store and process geographic data. There was a similar situation in the early days of Google Maps – the possibilities for online mapping were there, but pioneers worried about the sheer scale of its demands for data, storage and processing power.

Brian McClendon was the vice president of engineering at Keyhole when it was acquired by Google in 2004, and stayed with Google Maps to launch their product. Years later, he admitted in an interview with Fast Company, “We used more than half of the bandwidth of all Google in the first six days and scared the company quite a bit.”

But technological capacity caught up, and it surely will continue to advance and do away with these limitations in the future. So what can we expect?

Connecting more with the IoT

The IoT is the name being given to the vast network that is all of the various “smart” devices connected to each other through the Internet. With smart fridges, smart watches, smartphones and self-driving cars all connected together, we can collect more geospatial data from their environments.

Key to acquiring useful data from the IoT will be advances in sensor technology. Video and image sensors in self-driving cars and manned and unmanned drones can provide online maps with vast amounts of geocoded imagery, and it’ll be regularly updated.

LiDAR and radio sensors in phones and self-driving cars could supply central databases with 3D coordinates that map all of our indoor and outdoor environments with real-time data. Online maps would become accurate to the millimetre and could be regularly – or constantly – updated.

Meanwhile, online mapping might link up with networks of, for example, air quality sensors to show real-time local pollution information, parking lot capacity and pedestrian congestion (this has become much more important in 2020 due to the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus). In fact, the ways that online maps could present data collected through the IoT are as endless as the ever-growing list of “smart” objects that form its network.

Augmented reality

Augmented reality (AR) is already a feature of Google Maps – and any mobile app with turn-by-turn navigation. AR is simply the use of computer display to add information to (or augment) our sensory experience of the world (reality).

It’s different to virtual reality (VR) in that it complements elements of the real world as they’re experienced through our senses. A low-tech example of AR could be the audio guides you find at museums and attractions. They complement your sensory experience of the attraction with additional information, which is designed to be presented to you as you move through the real world space.

AR and online maps have already paired up for gaming as well. Pokémon Go was released by Niantic in 2016 and quickly became a viral hit. It combined game elements with real imagery from the phone camera and the GPS signal in a UI that showed the world some of the possibilities of AR connected with online maps.

Not surprisingly, Niantic is run by an online mapping visionary, John Hanke – who developed Keyhole, the first scalable, digital map of the world and the basis for Google Maps.

Online mapping will be a key feature of the next generation of AR tech: helmet displays, glasses and contact lenses. Google is already invested in next-generation AR technology, with the Google Glass released in 2013 as the first in its kind of AR glasses.

With these visual AR overlays – for which the technology already exists – navigation and rich-featured local information can be displayed right before your eyes, controlled with eye gestures.

What you’ll get is a fully immersive turn-by-turn navigation experience, one that won’t have you pulling your phone out of your pocket to check you’re on the right way every five minutes! As well as this, AR embedded with online maps will show you as much geocoded data as you care to look at. A glance at a bus stop could show you the next departures, you could see restaurant reviews while you walk past, or learn about the history of your city in guided AR tours.

More mapping: Indoors and upstairs

To make an always-on AR environment possible, there needs to be a lot more mapping and geocoding of inside and 3D space.

You can expect online maps to include more 3D levels showing complex built environments with bridges, walkways and underground passages in the future – something that already exists in a few areas.

As well as this, you’ll increasingly be able to take your online maps indoors as more buildings get the geocoding treatment. You can already navigate inside some big transit stations, airports and public buildings with Google Maps – more are being added all the time.

Adding and verifying more crowdsourced content

A lot more content for Google Maps and other online maps will be crowdsourced in the future. A big part of this will be due to growth in the IoT, a massive network of connected devices which will automatically collect data.

AR glasses, contact lenses and helmet-displays with video, LiDAR and radio (VLR) sensors could also record what you can see and send that data back through the IoT to update databases.

The benefit of this IoT-connected way of getting users to add data to online maps is that all of the images and 3D coordinates come from a verifiable geographic position (due to GPS).

As well as this automatic geocoded data gathering, online maps will be able to engage more interactively with their users as the devices they run on become more powerful. Customizing map views with tailored content, and including more social content depending on the user’s preferences, will become increasingly widespread – especially when combined with AR to create immersive digital and real-world experiences.

More automatic content

As well as automatically acquiring geocoded data from connected sensors, maps will get more automatic content in the future from developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML).

AI is already a big component in local search and recommendations in Google Maps, but its potential for generating data is yet to be fully realised.

Improved computer processing capacity will enable AI to make more calculations, take more iterative cycles to encourage ML, and process more and more complex data.

This will improve scraping algorithms, for example, leading to more and more accurate directory information. It will also be necessary to process the vast geographic data datasets that connected devices will provide through the IoT.

With this wealth of real-time geographic information, online maps of the future could become truly “live”. These maps will continually learn about the world and update to reflect new information.

Also known as semantic maps, living maps will be a real-time representation of the environment, even including moving cars and people. Digital maps that incorporate live 3D elements like this are a key enabling technology for self-driving cars and autonomous aircraft that may be providing the transportation of the future.

Richer experiences all round

The increases in our technological capacity for data storage, acquisition and processing that will enable the future of online maps we’ve touched on in this chapter will also – obviously – enrich all of our digital experiences across any device.

For online maps, we’ll keep seeing better graphics display, faster route finding and more accurate searches as technology advances.

As well as the overall improvement in digital technology and the big trends we’ve discussed so far, the future of online mapping will also continue to be peppered with new features and innovations. Some of them will become popular, everyday applications and others will fall by the wayside.

We could see more brand integration and marketing with online maps in the near future. Paid pins showing company logos above their stores, ads in directions, and special offer alerts as you walk by a store could all be integrated into web, mobile and future AR mapping.

We may see more features like the COVID-19 layer. Isochrones showing average travel times or air quality information can already be integrated with online maps.

As maps become more powerful, the number of potential features and applications will outstrip anything like an average user’s needs very soon. In the future, there will be more ways to customize your online mapping experience to suit you. We’ll also see more companies offering to help customers customize maps or develop applications with advanced features like AR and living maps.

Whatever happens, Google Maps will certainly continue to be at the forefront of innovation and progress.

Written by Ben Pilkington. Published January 27, 2021.