Are Apple and Google 3D Maps Gimmicks?

Flyover view from Apple looks impressive, but is it useful? (Credit: Apple, Inc.)

I attended Google‘s mapping press conference last week and, today, attended Apple‘s World Wide Developer’s Conference, where I witnessed a demo of Apple’s new map app for the iPhone and iPad.

Although I haven’t looked at them side-by-side, the demos were pretty similar. Both companies are using fleets of airplanes to fly around major cities to capture images of every building in their path. Apple didn’t get into details but, in an interview at the Google announcement last week, Google Vice President of Engineering Brian McClendon told me that Google captures images from all four points of the compass plus straight down.

In both cases the apps are able to render this imagery in real-time as you use the product, enabling you to view the buildings and streets from various angles and altitudes.

What you see looks very cool, but I can only think of a few practical applications. For the most part, what you want when using a mapping program is accurate turn-by-turn directions, traffic data and real-time updates on how many more miles you have to drive and when you’re likely to arrive.  You also want it to be easy to use (both Google and Apple integrate their maps with voice commands — in Apple’s case it’s using Siri) and you want the software to know about lots of points of interest.  Even with the current version of iOS, you can ask Siri to find you the nearest sushi bar and get driving directions. With the new iOS 6 map app, you’ll get much better turn-by-turm directions.

Love aerial views

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a former private pilot and still occasionally go up in friends’ airplane to enjoy aerial views of the world. But as fun as that is, it’s not all that practical as a navigational tool.

I can think of a view applications. For example, a number of years ago when my daughter was thinking of moving into a rental house in college, I used Google Earth to scope out the neighborhood.  Even with the technology of the time, I was able to tell that she was moving into a pleasant looking residential neighborhood, not far from a grocery store.  I suppose the ability to fly over that area would have been an even more useful way to check it out, but it’s not all that compelling to be able to do that from a mobile phone.

Distracted driving spying

The other thing to consider is that people are using mobile mapping apps while they’re driving. It’s hard enough to pay attention to your driving while looking at a map. People certainly shouldn’t be looking too closely at 3D animations.

The UK’s Daily Mail is panicking about “spy planes” that “have your sun lounger in their sights” and while I’m sure there will be some reported cases of inappropriate aerial photographs that invade people’s privacy,  I suspect the actual number of cases will be relatively small considering that the planes aren’t flying around constantly.

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