Why Google’s (and Apple’s Alleged) 3D Maps Don’t Seem That Exciting

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The web’s abuzz with talk of Apple’s new 3D mapping software, to allegedly debut at WWDC next week, where it will reportedly presage the demise of Google Maps on iOS devices.

It’s all part of Cupertino’s grand plan to extricate itself from Google’s ad-speckled clutches, goes this line of thinking. Google Maps serves up sponsored search results — I just typed “Buy Buy Baby” into Google Maps on my iPhone, for instance, and got a listing back for “Target Pharmacy – Sponsored Link” — and that means Google’s making money at Apple’s expense. Apple wants in on the action, because…who wouldn’t?

(MORE: Google Touts 3D, Offline Features for Maps Amid Reports of Apple Setback)

Leaving the economics of such a decision aside, I’m wondering if all this hoopla about 3D maps is a little overblown, sort of like the buzz about “3D anything” these days.

Do people really care about 3D maps? About what still, for all the maps’ spatial dimensionality, amounts to a static, visually imperfect view of the past? Will anyone use the tech in a just-getting-around sense? Or is all this coverage of the technology as the “next big thing” (from Apple as well as Google), at least in part, more blogosphere fetishizing and echo-chambering?

Adding to the 3D maps hullabaloo, Google updated its own mapping strategy yesterday, touting its improved “ability to model the world in 3D.” Google said it would “begin adding 3D models to entire metropolitan areas to Google Earth on mobile devices” — I’m assuming to preempt Apple’s WWDC reveal next week — using “new imagery rendering techniques” that allow the company to model in 3D with more detail, including “terrain” and “landscaping” features.

By 2012’s close, Google says it hopes to have about 300 million people’s worth of metropolitan area rendered in 3D. Apparently the company can do this by using airplanes that do city fly-bys and take snaps at 45-degree angles, after which everything’s stitched together, and voila, 3D city simulacrum!

But aside from the “hey, that’s kind of cool” factor and the novelty of being able to zip through frozen-in-time 3D photos of select areas or — if your area’s covered — show someone a 3D version of where you live, I’m wondering how useful (or used) the technology’s going to be for average users like me.

I understand how 3D maps might have niche value, say in educational circumstances, where the technology would allow students to poke around in places they’ve never physically been and get a reasonable sense of how cities, since we’re talking primarily metropolitan areas here, are stitched together. There’s certainly something to be said for being able to fly (or float) around famous landmarks and metropolitan hotspots, even if that technology’s already kind-of-sort-of existed for years in flight simulators like X-Plane and Microsoft’s Flight Simulator series.

But for the rest of us, even the presumably significant jump in visual quality, based on shots of the mapping technology used by various mapping companies Apple bought between 2009 and 2011, as well as Google’s video yesterday, still has significant drawbacks.

How well will those zoomed-out shots scale if you zoom in? There’s the question of whether these maps would be as helpful, say you’re scoping an area for real estate prospects, as the static photos that currently appear in Google Maps in some areas if you drop all the way down to street level. Do we care about 3D-everything if all we can do is appreciate it with thousand-yard stares?

Then there’s the issue of datedness. The Google Maps satellite shot of an area immediately south of where I live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for instance, until recently showed several acres of trees which the University of Michigan had since wiped away to build a soccer field when I moved into my condo in summer 2010. The current satellite view now shows the site under construction, even though it’s been finished for over a year. So 3D or no, we’re talking about maps that at the texturing/detailing level can be so out of date that years tick by before massive changes to areas register.

It’s one thing to map roads in a GPS app, because roads are generally static (new ones, or changes like crosswise intersection conversions to roundabouts notwithstanding). But landscapes change all the time. Imagine using one of these 3D mapping tools as a way to scout real estate prospects, for instance — barring realtime updating, which granted we’ll probably see someday. With all the extra activity involved in collating 3D mapping data — flying planes around and snapping pictures and such — the chances are excellent that these maps will continue to be more like time machines than present-day overviews: call them “Google/Apple 3D Maps, Give or Take a Year or Two.”

I use Google Maps for two things at this point, and two things only: as shorthand for my GPS, if I need to get a sense for where something is, quickly, without all the extra steps GPS apps require, and as a subset of other apps, like fitness tools that hook into Google Maps to represent where I’m at during a run.

Navigating in two dimensions is relatively simple, fast (low processing overhead) and I only have to think in two dimensions — my brain doesn’t have to perform any 3D-on-a-2D-screen-looking-back-at-a-3D-world interpolation to understand my spatial relationship to what’s around me.

Add photorealistic 3D to the process and, if I’m trying to use the map as a means of navigation, my brain’s visual processing centers start to buck (an opinion that’s based in part on my experience playing photorealistic 3D racing games in cars while someone else is driving). I suspect there’s a brain science reason even the so-called “3D” modes in GPS apps are still just line and primary color abstractions.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t object to 3D mapping technology in principle. Bring it on. It’ll be fun to play around with, and it’ll probably always be optional. Its potential for greatness down the road, if we ever get to realtime simulation, is considerable (though if that’s possible, there’ll be one heck of a privacy wrangle). And there’s always the off chance it’ll spur creative uses no one’s yet thought of, like these stories (possibly apocryphal) of folks finding sunken ships or treasure using data from Google Maps or Google Earth.

But for now, at least to me, the technology feels a little like the 3D movie shtick, or the 3DS’s no-glasses stereoscopic trick, where there’s a huge top-down push to sell what amounts to gimmicky “plus” features to consumers, as opposed to a bottom-up demand for the technology with quantifiable applications.

Expect lots of media gushing next week about 3D maps if Apple does as expected and unveils its own 3D mapping tech, but unless Tim Cook has something extra up his sleeve, app-wise, we’re probably looking at more of a cool, cosmetic layer of gloss slapped on top of a shrewd economics-driven maneuver than a Siri-caliber consumer-angled innovation.

MORE: Rumor: Apple Adding Photorealistic 3D Maps to iOS 6, Dumping Google Tech
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