Goodbye, Mr Fox. Google's dropping the whimsy from its AR Maps.
Scott SteinEditor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
ExpertiseVR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tabletsCredentials
Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Google's AR-enabled Maps app was first teased at last year's I/O, introducing a fox that helped you find your way when you held up your phone to look at the world. Google Maps' AR walking navigation feature is now available to anyone with a Pixel phone, but the fox is gone. The reason is related to the ways Google is looking to make AR helpful in Search or Lens.
At Google's I/O developer conference, the team behind the AR experience in Maps explained what happened to that fox and laid down guidelines on how to create practical AR. The conversation was fascinating, and illustrated a few key things: Google's ideas on functional AR are changing, and upcoming Google AR experiences might also appear in Maps.
The fox was too magical
It turns out that Google made a lot of design prototypes for how Maps AR would work, and many failed. The delightful fox-as-guide that appeared at last year's I/O conference and brought a Hiyao Miyazaki presence to Maps isn't there for now. Google's UX designer for the AR Maps experience, Rachel Inman, explained that people expected the fox to be smarter, to lead them to interesting things. The fox was enchanting but distracting.
The fox may come back someday, but clearly Maps' mission was to become more helpful rather than ultra-immersive. Even seemingly basic ideas ended up being too compelling. An original navigational design for the AR map directions painted a blue line on the ground, tracing the directions as you walk, but apparently "people felt compelled to walk right on the blue line."
Watch this: Google Search gets AR, and Google Lens wants to be your assistant
This seems to have led to Google laying down new design principles for AR learned from Maps, which may disappoint lovers of dancing dinosaurs. Information in Maps is designed not to look like it's part of the real world. It's not supposed to blend, meaning it stands out and can be located faster. Google calls it "Grounding and Glanceability."
Similarly, the things that pop up in the new Google Maps AR are pretty... map-like. A principle called "Leverage the Familiar" suggests that, since AR takes up a small part of what you see on a phone when using AR, those effects should involve familiar things.
Google had plans for a sparkling river-like flow of particles that would guide you through the map instead of the big floating arrow that's in the current version. But that failed too. Inman said people hated it and felt like they were following blowing bits of trash.
Focus and safety over whimsy
Google's also trying to keep distractions down in AR mode, limiting the pop-up information from locations. The less-is-more approach is supposed to help people stay focused for utility apps such as Maps.
But, interestingly, Google's Maps AR team doesn't want you staying in AR for long. The recommendation is be fast, and then get back to the real world. This sounds familiar: In fact, the quick-glance approach was at work in Google Glass' notifications, and lives on in Google's Wear OS smartwatches.
Google Maps doesn't want you to walk in AR (for now)
Maps currently does something odd when using the AR mode: If you start walking while using it, it blacks out and puts up a message reminding you to pay attention to the real world. Google's team is concerned about distraction while walking and people's safety. It may seem paradoxical, especially since heads-up AR directions seem like the perfect thing for some pair of futuristic magic smartglasses.
But those smartglasses don't exist yet, and Google Maps AR just uses your phone. Maybe the warning's a smart idea, but offering us the choice to override it would be nice. After all, we're already heads-down in our phones all the time, anyway.
Spatial audio AR, like Bose's audio tech, seems like it could be a solution for navigation without visual distraction, but Google's not pursuing augmented audio yet.
Google's push for more practical AR in apps such as Maps and Lens suggests that this quick-glance focused design might be on the rise. But then again, Maps is still a work in progress. And as it keeps being tested on Pixel phones, Google says some of its design ideas could still change.