STYLE

10 years on, Google Maps still evolving in efforts to capture the world

02/11/2015 05:00 EST | Updated 04/12/2015 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - When Google Maps launched in 2005, it was hardly the online equivalent of a world atlas.

"We only had maps for North America and Germany. The entire world apart from these areas was all blue and water," recalled Manik Gupta, director of product management for Google Maps.

Unlike other mapping products that required users to click and scroll for different views, Gupta said what differentiated Google Maps was the ability to zoom and pan, allowing for greater interactivity.

There's been a dramatic transformation of Google Maps since its origins as a web-only application.

There are millions of mobile users able to use the product to access locations for sought-after services and transit schedules. It can also function as a directional GPS with turn-by-turn navigation.

In 2005, satellite imagery-based mapping service Google Earth was launched, followed in 2007 by Street View, allowing for panoramic, street-level imagery of famous landmarks, natural wonders and interior locations now available across 65 countries, including Canada.

There are some 200 countries and territories mapped and more than one billion monthly active users of Google Maps services. But a decade on, the work of developers is ongoing, with Gupta's personal view that mobile is still an evolving area "ripe for innovation."

"Things change all the time," Gupta said from Mountain View, Calif.

"New places open up, new roads open up, there's a lot of construction going on and so on. So the world is messy, it's unpredictable, and that is, to me, the biggest challenge for us. How do we detect what is changing in the real world and then we're able to process it and show it to our users just when they need the information?

"My prediction is over the next 10 years we will continue to make significant progress on this. I'm not entirely sure that we will solve the problem because it is a very, very difficult problem to solve. But at the same time, I do feel that we're reaching a point where we will be getting much better at it."

The Map Maker product allows users to contribute knowledge about their neighbourhood and update geographic information in Google Maps or Google Earth.

"A large part of our effort is also co-opting these users who work with us and give us information around places that have changed," said Gupta.

The California-based company plans to continue its Arctic mapping projects, having already brought Street View cameras to Cambridge Bay and Iqaluit in Nunavut and to capture images of polar bears in Churchill, Man. Google Maps has also teamed with Parks Canada to map several of the country's national parks and historic sites.

With use of Street View, Gupta said they've started recognizing objects automatically within that imagery — such as traffic signs and even street addresses — to be able to extract and apply that information to update maps.

"We are getting into the space where we are making a lot of progress around some of those aspects, which will make our maps better and better over time."

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