Future Tense

How Augmented Reality Is Going to Change Google Maps

Walking directions will be safer, less confusing, and pretty cool.

A phone displays the augmented reality feature on Google Maps.

Augmented reality is one of the hottest areas in consumer technology. Apple, Facebook, Google, and many others are devoting significant resources to ensure developers have the tools they need to create memorable app experiences and make AR products of their own. At Google’s I/O developer conference this week, AR naturally played a notable role in many announcements. In particular, the sneak peek at the future of Google Maps showed how AR will integrate more seamlessly into our daily lives.

In a future version of Google Maps, Google will use AR to overlay turn-by-turn walking instructions and animations over the real-time feed from your phone’s camera. As you walk, your phone screen is split between a map image of your vicinity and the video stream from your camera. An arrow indicates which way you should proceed, with the on-screen map’s orientation rotating as your position changes in the real world. For those who’ve found their internal compass disrupted at a perplexing intersection, the feature sounds like a godsend. It could also help fix a growing issue in our smartphone-centric culture: distracted walking.

Distracted walking or texting while walking isn’t just an annoying modern problem, it’s actually proving fatal. In 2016 pedestrian deaths reached record numbers: 6,000, an 11 percent jump over the previous year, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. The number stayed roughly level in 2017. Experts and safety advocates pinpoint smartphones and distracted walking as a leading cause for that unusual bump. Some metropolitan areas, such as the town of Augsburg in Germany, have embedded traffic lights in the sidewalks themselves so pedestrians looking downwards at their phones (“smombies,” as they’re called) can see them. Even indoors, reports surfaced that employees at Apple’s new campus were accidentally colliding with glass doors and walls as they walked heads down, looking at their phones.

AR could make navigating while walking safer and less confusing. It offers the opportunity for smartphone-glued pedestrians to look at the contents of their phone’s screen while seeing where they’re going as well. With this in mind, it raises the possibility of smartphone-makers creating an operating systemwide augmented reality walking mode. For some activities, such as texting or emailing, the full screen isn’t needed for that activity. It could be divided, like Google’s upcoming AR update to Maps, with the camera’s feed at the top of the screen and whatever app you’re using below. With such a system in place, pedestrians would be able to walk and type, for example, while still seeing the way ahead (although there’s also the risk it could exacerbate today’s texting-while-walking problems by essentially encouraging the habit).

Of course, such an AR system is possibly just an interim solution until AR headsets and glasses that digitally overlay information onto our world in an even less obtrusive way. However, it’s unclear when we’ll see an array of less dorky, more useful follow-ups to Google Glass in the real world. Reports suggest they could land by 2019 or 2020, but some promising projects like Intel’s smart glasses have been completely shuttered, raising questions of whether the masses will ever be ready to wear computers on their faces—and whether hardware-makers will be willing to risk launching such products.

Silicon Valley companies are trying to find ways to blend technology into your life in useful and positive ways. To that end, Google introduced a dashboard and suite of tools so users can better manage time spent on their mobile devices. It took years to develop unsafe and unhealthy mobile habits such as constantly touching our phones and walking while texting; users aren’t going to change overnight. When it comes to distracted walking, the addition of augmented reality or a pass-through video feed on-screen could help an unfortunate hazardous pastime become a little safer. It’s also easier to swallow since it wouldn’t require the purchase of a new product—like AR glasses—and doesn’t even necessitate a drastic change in daily habit. While operating system–makers continue to explore the possibilities of AR, they shouldn’t overlook the potential safety-related applications it could offer. “Smombies” aren’t just a threat to themselves; they also pose a danger to others on sidewalks and roads—and even to glass walls.