Google Maps tips new 3D mode, offline access

Google on Wednesday demonstrated its 3D maps technology, disclosing that a fleet of planes will fly over cities in the U.S. to provide map imagery in three dimensions.

Google also disclosed that Google Maps on Android - not Apple's iOS - will soon be available in offline mode, potentially allowing tourists in foreign countries, for example, to preload a map without needing an overseas data plan. Google made that feature available as a Google Labs project in Google Maps for Android 5.7.

Google executives declined to directly address reports that Apple will drop Google Maps from its mobile iOS. A recent report had claimed that Apple would ditch Google Maps for its upcoming iOS 6 release, due later this year. Apple may release details of iOS 6 at its Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) next week.

"I'm very proud of Google Maps...which is available on a variety of platforms today, and we will make Google Maps as widely available as we can," said Brian McClendon, vice president of engineering for Google Maps, during a press conference in San Francisco. Google said previously that its next-generation Maps event would feature the "next dimension" of maps.

"The power of Google Maps has been developed over a number of years. The search box is more powerful than a geocoder," McClendon said.

McClendon said that the 3D technology will be available to "several cities" in the States at an upcoming launch in the next several weeks. Peter Birch, a product manager for Google Earth, claimed that the 3D technology will cover metropolitan areas totaling about 300 million people by the end of the year - the Greater London metropolitan area, by way of comparison, has just under 8 million people.

Google Earth has traditionally been a 3D view of Google Maps; although Google Earth can be accessed from within Maps, the two have always maintained a somewhat distant relationship. The 3D announcement helps bring them together. Maps today covers 187 countries and 26 million miles, with turn-by-turn directions available in 29 countries, executives said.

Google executives positioned the new 3D technology as complementary to its fleet of Street View tricycles and cars, which have traversed cities across the globe, parks, the Amazon River, and the world's finest art museums. Recently, Google has taken its Maps and Street View indoors, adding geo-location capabilities. Google even showed off a new, personal version of its Street View technology, dubbed Trekker, which will allow a hiker to map more areas where even bikes or snowmobiles cannot reach.

Historically, Google has licensed its own satellite imagery to create the top-down satellite images used by Google Earth and Google Maps. With the new 3D technology, a fleet of planes flown by contractors will sweep over the city at a predefined, exact route, taking block-by-block pictures at 45-degree angles. When algorithmically evaluated and stitched together, Google's Maps team can create the 3D models.

"We knew we wanted to do something better and wanted to do something comprehensive, something that would be consistent and something that we could scale," Birch said.

Google's McClendon declined to comment when asked if it would use unmanned drones, claiming it was a "can of worms" that he was not prepared to address. In a demonstration, the new 3D maps view swept over San Francisco and showed off a new "tour mode" that allowed users to explore the areas around of the city's main parks.

McClendon dismissed privacy concerns, saying that the 45-degree angle photography had been long established. Google has had a history of clashing with legislators and regulators over Street View.

Google announced that the company's Street View cars have traversed more than 5 million miles, capturing 20 petabytes worth of imagery.

Google also showed off how it uses computer vision to learn more about the world its Street View cars traverse. One project, called "Ground Truth," used vision to identify roadway and street signs, and place them appropriately. McClendon also said that its cars' GPS devices could also provide lane guidance, based on their routes. Maps even corrects for seismic drift, he said.

Google showed off a concept known internally as "Ground Truth", using computer vision and the company's Street View cars to create even richer maps and information about the world around them. Ground Truth is Google's five-year project to create its own internal maps data, McClendon said.