Google Earth Street View Live Online – Behind every Google map is a much more complex map that is the key to your queries, but hidden from your eyes. The depth map contains the logic of the locations: their turn restrictions and freeway entrances, speed limits, and traffic conditions. That’s the data you draw on when you ask Google to navigate you from point A to point B — and last week Google showed me the inside map and demonstrated how it’s made. It’s the first time the company has let anyone watch how the project, which it calls GT or “Ground Truth,” actually works.
Google opened at a pivotal point in its development. The company started as an online search company that made money almost entirely from selling ads based on your searches. But then the mobile world exploded. Where you search has become almost as important as what you search. Google responded by creating an operating system, a brand and an ecosystem in Android that became the only significant rival to Apple’s iOS.
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And there is a reason. If Google’s mission is to organize all the information in the world, the main challenge – much bigger than indexing the Internet – is to take the physical information of the world and make it accessible and useful.
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“If you look at the offline world, the real world that we live in, that information is not entirely online,” said Manik Gupta, senior product manager for Google Maps. “As we go forward in our lives, we try more and more to bridge that gap between what we see in the real world [the online world], and maps play that role.”
This is not just a theoretical question. Mapping systems are important precisely because they are the interface between the offline and online worlds. If you’re like me, you use Mapping more than any other app except for the communications suite (phone, email, social networking, and texting).
Google has entered into a battle with the world’s largest company Apple over who will control the future of mobile phones. While Apple’s strengths lie in product design, supply chain management and retail marketing, Google’s clearest competitive advantage is in information. Geospatial data—and the applications built to use it—is where Google can win, just because it’s Google. This didn’t matter with previous generations of iPhones because they used Google Maps, but now Apple has developed its own service. How the two operating systems integrate geospatial data and present it to users could become a key battleground in the phone wars.
The office where Google built the best representation in the world is not an unusual place. It’s got all the free food, ping pong, and Christoph Niemann-inspired Google Maps cartoons you’d expect, but it’s still a low-rise office building right off the 101 in suburban Mountain View.
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I got to meet with Gupta and his team’s technical lead, ex-NASA engineer Michael Weiss-Malik, who spent 20 percent of his time working with Google Mars, and Nick Vollmar, the “operator” who actually manipulates the mapping data. met .
“So you want to make a map,” Weiss-Malik tells me as we sit in front of a giant monitor. “There are several steps. They collect shared data. You do a lot of engineering on that data, you put it in the right format and merge it with other data sources, and then you do a lot of operations and it’s this tool all of that, massaging the data by hand. And at the other end you find something that is of a higher quality than the sum of its parts.”
So they started using the US Census Bureau’s TIGER data (although the base layer can come from different sources in different countries).
At first glance, this data looks great. The roads look like they’re all there, and you chose the highways. This is a good map for the untrained eye. But let’s take a closer look. There are problems where digital data does not correspond to the physical world. I’ve circled a few obvious ones below.
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And that’s just by comparing the map to the satellite imagery. There are also various other tools available from Google. You import data from other sources, says the US Geological Survey. But Google’s ground artists can also bring another exclusive benefit to the map theme: Street View routes and car images. True to Google’s mantra, more data is better data, the mapping team, fueled largely by Street View, releases more images every two weeks than Google had in all of 2006*
Let’s take a step back to recall the amazement at the idea that a company decided to drive cars with custom cameras across every street they could access. Google is now up to five million miles. Each device produces two types of data that are really useful for mapping. One is the tracks the cars actually made; They are proof that certain paths can be followed. The others are all pictures. And what’s special about Street View images is that Google can run algorithms that can extract road signs and even insert them into the deep map in their atlas tool. So for a particularly complex intersection like this one in downtown San Francisco, it might look like this:
Google Street View was not designed to create such maps, but the Geo team quickly realized that computer vision could give them incredible ground observation data for their maps. Not to digress too much, but what you see above is just the beginning of how Google will use Street View imagery. Think of them as the early web crawlers (remember them?) that went out and searched for words on pages. That’s what Street View does. One of its first applications is finding street signs (and addresses) so that Google Maps can better understand the logic of human transportation systems. But with the improvement of computer vision and OCR, every word seen from the street becomes part of Google’s index of the physical world.
As Google Maps VP Brian McClendon said later in the day, “We can actually organize the physical written information of the world if we can recognize it and place it,” McClendon said. “Now we use it to create our maps, extract street names and addresses, but there’s so much more.”
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More like what? “We now have what we call ‘watch code’ for 6 million businesses and 20 million addresses where we know exactly what we’re looking at,” McClendon continued. “We can use logo matching and figure out where the KFC signs are… We can identify and semantically understand every pixel that’s captured. It is fundamental to our work.”
But for now, computer vision, which converts Street View imagery directly into geographic understanding, remains the preserve of the future. The best way to find out if you can still turn left at a particular intersection is to have a person look at a sign — whether it’s a person driving or a person looking at a car-generated image on Street View.
It has an analogy with one of Google’s other impressive projects: Google Translate. What looks like machine intelligence is actually just a combination of human intelligence. Translation relies on a huge amount of text that people have translated into different languages; It is then able to extract words and phrases that go together. The algorithms aren’t really that complicated, but they work because of the sheer amount of data (ie, human intelligence) that goes into the task from the front end.
Google Maps performed a similar operation. Humans encode each piece of traffic logic into a representation of the world that allows computers to easily (infinitely, instantaneously) reproduce judgments that a human has already made.
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That reality is embodied in Nick Vollmar, the cinematographer who introduced Atlas, as Weiss-Malik and Gupta explain. He probably uses twenty-five keyboard shortcuts to switch between map data types, and exhibits the kind of nervous quickness I associate with experienced designers who work with Adobe products or professional Starcraft players. Vollmar has apparently spent thousands of hours working with this data. Weiss-Malik told me it takes hundreds of operators to map a country. (Many of these people are said to work in the Bangalore office from which Gupta was promoted).
The amount of human effort put into Google Maps is simply amazing. Every street you see slightly curved in the photo above has been hand massaged by a human. The most instructive moment for me came when we looked at some of the several thousand user reports of problems with Google Maps that come in every day. The Geo team tries to solve most of the problems
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