Thursday, August 30, 2012, 05:41 am PT (08:41 am ET)
Apple's iOS 6 3D Flyovers aim to be more helpful, less creepy than Google Street ViewApple is incorporating advanced 3D imaging to bring a variety of new features to iOS users, from building outlines to topographical terrain to fully rendered 3D models that not only replace Google's StreetView, but offer to provide 360 degree views across neighborhoods, behind buildings and even off roads.
Apple's strategy of taking its Maps solo in iOS 6 was described in Apple wants to wipe Google off the map with iOS 6, while a second segment, How Apple's new vector-based Maps leave Google Maps looking jittery detailed how the company will be levering vector graphics to greatly improve the Maps experience in iOS.
However, there are a variety of attractive features Google has bundled into its web and app-based Google Maps portfolio, providing a tall order for anyone hoping to replicate all those features. Apple certainly has big shoes to fill in the maps department. Among these are:
Google's 3D models and StreetView maps
Google Earth began mapping the world with 3D building outlines, a feature Google later brought into the Android version of its mobile maps client. Apple never adopted these 3D models however, so all iOS users see in the current iOS 5 Maps client is a 2D depiction of the building outlines Google has added to the bit mapped tiles it serves Apple's Maps client, without any ability to freely rotate the map (below, in contrast with Google's 3D massing models visible in Google Maps for Android).
More recently, Google has introduced 3D features that essentially paint images from aerial photography onto building outlines, resulting in a nearly photorealistic 3D model that users can explore from different angles. These features require significant client-side processing power to render, and just as with Google's basic 3D outlines, Apple hasn't ever incorporated them into its iOS Maps client.
In order to provide an explorable map that is efficient in both processing and bandwidth requirements (compared to 3D model rendering), Google first began its StreetView project, which sends out vehicles to all major roads, taking panoramic images that users can then access in a "you are there" view of virtually any block face visible from virtually any significant road Google's camera-equipped cars have traveled.
Conceptually, StreetView can be dated back to an ARPA project developed at MIT, which in 1978 began mapping the town of Aspen, Colorado, using photographs stored on interactive Laserdisc, allowing users to virtually walk down streets, and even bring up seasonal views of the town from multiple perspectives.
The Aspen Movie Map was one of the first advanced examples of hypermedia, and was described by a young Steve Jobs in a 1983 speech describing the future potential of personal computing.
"It's really amazing," Jobs said, describing the project in contrast with conventional, static forms of old media. "It's not incredibly useful," he added as the audience laughed, "but it points to some of the interactive nature of this new medium which is just starting to break out from movies, and will take another five to ten years to evolve."
Ten years later in 1994, Apple would release QuickTime VR, which allowed photographers to stitch together photos taken from a single location into a node that viewers could later explore dynamically, creating a new type of movie where playback was no longer fixed along a linear progression. Users could also jump between nodes, effectively exploring a virtual model of a real or imagined universe one spot at a time (or, alternatively, view an object from multiple perspectives).
QuickTime VR finds a use, 13 years later, in StreetView
While a variety of companies copied or extended upon Apple's work on QuickTime VR, there was never a huge market for the technology. That is, until Google realized that panoramic photography would make an ideal way to efficiently allow Google Maps users to explore the world right from their web browser.
Thus, Google's StreetView exploited a useful application for the QuickTime VR technology Apple pioneered commercially in 1994, four years before Google was founded as a company and 13 years before Google debuted StreetView in 2007.
While not without controversy from privacy advocates (and with government stopping Google's work of StreetView mapping the world in countries like Australia, Germany and India), Google has effectively covered vast areas of Europe, Russia, North America, Brazil, Japan, Thailand, South Korea and South Africa with its camera cars.
Apple incorporated support for StreetView in iOS 2.2 Maps in 2008, but accessing the feature is not necessarily obvious; users must drop a location pin, bring up its information panel and then tap the StreetView icon to view a local panorama image of the spot (if its is available, and not obscured by passing vehicles or other obstructions).
Users can then step along the street in increments, turn down other mapped streets, and get close enough to houses to see right in homeowners' windows.
On the web, Google still relies upon the Adobe Flash plugin to view StreetView panoramas, making them inaccessible to iOS users outside of Apple's specially designed Maps client. In iOS 6, Apple has removed the ability to access Google's StreetView images.
Duplicating Google's four years' worth of efforts in mapping streets from the ground level would be an enormous task (although other mapping companies have started doing this). But instead of skating to where the puck was in 2007, Apple has started promoting a new, overlapping feature for Maps in iOS 6: Flyover.
On page 2 of 3: Flyover's virtual StreetView
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