Google's Rachel Inman, who works on user-experience for the new feature, said the company hopes to make it simpler to go between the two-dimensional map on your phone and the three-dimensional world around you. We've all had the experience of coming up from the subway and walking a half block or a full block in the wrong direction and being really annoyed when we have to turn around and walk the way we were supposed to go in the first place, "she told CNN Business at a real-life demonstration of the feature in San Francisco on Monday.
As the feature is in the early stages of user testing, Google still has some kinks to work out. For instance, I noticed that the AR images in the app stopped working several times while I was walking to the coffee shop.
But if I was in a new city, it could save me time debating which direction to go ̵
Google said that for now, the feature is only being offered to a small group of people who frequently use and contribute to Google Maps. The company is not saying when it will be generally available.
"We are still learning a lot; this is still very early," cautioned Marek Gorecki, an engineering manager for Google Maps.
One reason the technology takes time to perfect is that it is difficult, even now, to reliably find where you are and what direction you're facing on a smartphone map.
Typically, a smartphone uses its built-in GPS and compass to determine your location and what direction you are facing in a mapping app. In crowded cities, however, this can get tricky. GPS relies on having a line of sight to pass along radio signals from far-off satellites to your phone, so tall buildings can make it hard to figure out exactly where you are. The compass, too, can be thrown off in urban places because of the abundance of magnetic objects such as metal in buildings, cars, buses and city infrastructure – such as light poles.
Once Google Maps has a more precise idea of where you are, it can overlay virtual images on what it sees through the smartphone's camera. They may look more like they are integrated with reality – something that has long been a challenge for companies building AR into smartphone apps.
For now, Google is trying to keep these images simple. An earlier prototype of the AR feature displayed fireworks when a user approached their destination in Google Maps, said Gorecki. The team decided that was not a good idea.
"It was mostly a distraction," he said. "You do not want to overdo it."