The Virtual Reality of Google Maps


[Aram Bartholl's clever art intervention, in Taipei]

The London Underground was quick to the mark when Apple recently brought out its new operating system for iPhones, iOS6. Seen on a noticeboard at Highbury & Islington Station: “For the benefit of passengers using Apple iOS 6, local area maps are available from the booking office.” Dropping Google Maps from iOS6 left many iPhone users lost and confused. In a city like London, where people are happy to give you directions if only they knew where they were, Google Maps was indispensible.

Which makes you wonder: How does Google build its maps? Alexis Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic, asks this very question in a recent story. Madrigal, who met with numerous Google mappers, including a former engineer for NASA, writes that, “How the two operating systems incorporate geo data and present it to users could become a key battleground in the phone wars.”

Part of that data is collected from Google’s Street View cars. Setting aside the creepy issue of seeing people and your own home online, without your permission, Google Maps is an example of the blurring and blending real worlds and digital worlds. “Humans are coding every bit of the logic of the road onto a representation of the world,” Madrigal writes, “so that computers can simply duplicate (infinitely, instantly) the judgments that a person already made.”

Think about this as more than just humans using data and creating real-world maps. This is about how our mental images of the physical world will change as we create more sophisticated programs to represent it. Manik Gupta, a product manager, told Madrigal, “If you look at the offline world, the real world in which we live, that information is not entirely online. Increasingly as we go about our lives, we are trying to bridge that gap between what we see in the real world and [the online world], and Maps really plays that part.”

Madrigal continues: “As we slip and slide into a world where our augmented reality is increasingly visible to us off and online, Google’s geographic data may become its most valuable asset. Not solely because of this data alone, but because location data makes everything else Google does and knows more valuable.”

But Google Maps is about more than just accurate information or, with the case of Street View, privacy issues, or even about how data is king. It’s about how our perception of real and virtual have already changed so much. The same way our children will not remember the era of cassette tapes and the world pre-smartphone, they will likely have different mental reconstructions of the world around them.

Unless they’re using iOS6. Then they might just get lost.

Reading List
+ Shout-out to long-form journalism. I first read this on Longreads.

+ Worried about being caught walking through your living naked when one of Google’s Street View vehicles rolls by? Read The Guardian's story about Google’s latest privacy controversy.