Google Maps now offers Google users the opportunity to do work for free that would otherwise cost the company a lot of money. Welcome to crowdsourcing: Google is allowing Google account holders to add interior floor plans to Google Maps and to make those interior maps available to users of Google Maps 6.0 for Android.
Google vice president of engineering for Google Earth and Maps Brian McClendon suggests this service can replace the familiar freestanding map directory kiosk that is a fixture in so many large commercial spaces.
Of course there's nothing wrong with these familiar you-are-here maps. But they're leaving money on the table. As location-based commerce heats up, Google sees an opportunity to replace an offline process with an online one that promotes local search engagement and mobile shopping potential. Earlier this year, the company took steps in this direction when it launched Google Maps Street View images of business interiors.
Google isn't the only company thinking along these lines. Mobile phone maker Ericsson in October introduced an Indoor Maps and Positioning API to help Android developers create indoor location-based services.
[ Android users might get their Ice Cream Sandwich sooner than they think. Read Android 4.0 Upgrade: Coming Soon To Your Phone?. ]
Who might need such a map? Travelers who can't read local signage. Beyond that, the use cases appear to be limited, particularly if the male stereotype about being averse to asking directions has any truth to it. Some will surely see stigma in consulting one's phone to ascertain what should be obvious from just looking around. But perhaps the geo-spatially challenged will take comfort in having a mobile mall map on a phone.
Here's how we see indoor maps being used:
1) Finding your way around an airport or transit hub.
The majority of Google indoor maps at launch depict airports (at least in the U.S.), which makes sense given the scale of international airports.
At the same time, it's not as if corpses of lost travelers are turning up in the hidden corners of terminals because of hopelessly labyrinthine airport corridors--Google's video promoting its new service actually depicts a cartoon minotaur menacing a traveler. Airport managers long ago discovered that signage, often in multiple languages, can be used to help travelers understand how to get around.
The system might not be broken, but even so Google has a fix. Just pray that those navigating by Android phone take the time to look up to avoid colliding with fellow passengers.
2) Finding your way around a mall.
Malls represent the second major use case for Google Maps of indoor locations. Take a gander at Google's sample map of Minneapolis' Mall of America and you can see why: It's all about pointing out the local businesses, the sort of action that might merit a referral fee or encourage a mobile ad purchase.
But such maps are only as good as the data provided: The Mall of America map provides plenty of store locations but offers no clue about the locations of restrooms. (The San Francisco International Airport, which includes conspicuous restroom icons, appears to have been mapped with attention to that detail.)
If only we humans had some other, natural means of gathering visual data about our surroundings.
3) Finding your way in a museum.
Museums could obviously benefit from a floor plan in Google Maps, even if they've managed fairly well with traditional signage, docents, and information desks. There are obvious opportunities to augment the museum-going experience with location-based video and audio guides about exhibits, as long as the experience is complementary rather than redundant. There's not really a need for a video of an exhibit that's standing a few feet away.
Even so, it would be sad to turn museum going, an experience that demands attention and presence in the moment, into yet another screen-mediated activity.
4) Finding your way around a sports stadium.
One would hope that Google already is preparing indoor maps for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. And perhaps there's a need for such maps in other stadiums.
True, the simple geometric design of most stadiums shouldn't be a vexing navigational challenge, but traveling in a straight line isn't as easy as it might seem after a few beers.
If nothing else, a Google indoor map of a stadium would allow near real-time updates of stadium names, which change with annoying frequency as naming rights are bought and sold.
5) Finding your way around a government building.
With interior maps, Android-toting tourists finally might be able to navigate the Washington Monument and lobbyists at last might be able to connect with congressional representatives. But given persistent concerns about terrorists and technology, it seems unlikely that Google Maps will ever provide much detail about government buildings.
And if that's true here, it will be doubly so in countries like China where the government licenses the right to map.
6) Being confounded by a malicious map.
Google requires that those submitting indoor maps have a Google account and that map contributors abide by its terms of service. But there appears to be little if any review of user map content. Google can be expected to remove malicious map content promptly upon notification, but it might not catch malicious maps immediately.
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