I’m walking down San Francisco’s Market Street toward a coffee shop using Google Maps when giant arrows pop up on my phone.
I’m supposed to turn right on Front Street. The directions are hard to miss in the new Google Maps . The large animated arrows make it clear with a glance which direction I should head. It looks something like this:
The feature came out Monday for select “local guides” who add new locations, rate businesses, take photos, and more for Google Maps. It’ll be on more guides’ phones in the coming days, although regular users shouldn’t expect it soon. For now, it’s being tested for feedback, and the look and feel of the feature is expected to change. It’s also strictly for walking directions — not for driving.
Back on my walk to coffee, I’m in the middle of what’s often referred to as an “urban canyon.” These are places where GPS can fail you as your positioning ricochets off buildings, pipes, cell towers, and more. Yes, you have full service and data is working, but locating you precisely is a challenge. So instead of pinpointing your exact location, the phone thinks you’re a block over. Then there’s the orientation issue — when Google Maps can’t tell which direction you’re heading or facing.
So when I take out my AR-enabled Google Maps app, it uses the camera to scan buildings, street layouts, even the foliage and street art to determine exactly where I am. I started off on my coffee-bound journey at the “Cupid’s Span” sculpture on the Embarcadero bayside waterfront. This is a permanent structure that Google Maps knows from over 10 years of Street View imagery and data collection. Once it sees that the sculpture is on my left and the Ferry Building is up ahead, a blue arrow is superimposed over the screen, directing me to walk forward.
Off I go.
AR maps directions aren’t meant for constant use. In fact, the phone displays a message if you hold up your phone for too long: “For your safety put the phone down as you walk.” It’s meant for “moments of usefulness,” as one of the Google Maps product managers tells me at the Monday morning demo walk.
As I put the phone down it reverts to its usual 2D map with my blue trail marking where I should head. If I get confused or want to make sure I’m on the right path, I can hold up the phone again and it re-scans my new surroundings and tells me how many more feet until my turning point. Emerging from a subway station or a building, it can orient you pretty instantly.
As a San Francisco native the step-by-step instructions aren’t that useful, but it is pretty fun. It reminds me of a racing video game in real-time and at walking pace. Or a Snapchat filter with useful information instead of vomiting rainbows. But as a traveler in a new city or for the countless tourists navigating SF’s hilly streets, this could be clutch. In a quick moment you get oriented and your phone is in sync with you. This could be the end of asking strangers which way to go.