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Google Maps becoming more context-aware and 'emotional'

Google's future maps could integrate data like places you've rated or people you hang out with, into an interactive visual presentation, the company's Maps gurus explain at a GigaOm conference.

GigaOm's Om Malik with Google's Jonas Jones and Bernhard Seefeld.
Dan Farber

SAN FRANCISCO -- For Google, the map of the future is taking everything it knows about you and the world and plotting it in real-time as you move through your life.

"We can build a whole new map for every context and every person," said Bernhard Seefeld, product management director for Google Maps, speaking at the GigaOm Roadmap 2013 conference. "It's a specific map nobody has seen before, and it's just there for that moment to visualize the data."

Like the early days of map making that told stories of discovery and created more of an emotional connection with the unfolding world, Google wants to build what Seefeld called "emotional maps that reflect our real life connections and peek into the future and possibly travel there."

Google's context-aware maps will require refining and extending the underlying map data, and combining it with the kind of personal data from applications that powers Google Now, the company's personal digital assistant technology.

"The map should draw stuff you care about. As you zoom out, the labels we have to choose what is important to show," said Jonah Jones, the lead user experience designer for Google Maps.

With knowledge of places you rated and reviewed, who you hang out with, places your friends visited or like and what sports teams you follow, Google's maps could integrate the most relevant contextual data in its interactive, visual presentation, he explained.

For example, if you were in a city where a football game was happening, and it was among the teams you followed, you could zoom in and Maps would show you the score and other data. If you are visiting Paris, with understanding of your interests and previous visits, Maps could show you places you haven't visited that fit your profile. "We make sure we re-rank and decide what to show on Maps that is super-interesting," Jones said.

One of the issues for Google is having the most up-to-date information and accurate maps of the interiors of places, as well as understanding the semantic meaning of situations, such as being at a cashier stand in a store, Seefeld said. Google Maps might know if you were in a particular store in a mall, for example, and surface relevant information on the map. "In the U.S., about 20 percent of businesses either close or open every year. "Building a system to keep up with the data is a core base challenge," Jones said.

In the future, Google Maps could integrate sensor data. "Location is one piece of context, knowing were you are. The sensor gives extra context," Seefeld said. In addition, Google is working on the concept of a "napkin" map, giving users a basic view of the things they need to know and making it easy to remember.

Seefeld hopes that Google can provide 10 percent more "experience' to users, including such things as pointing out a new cafe they haven't visited or a national park they didn't know about, because the maps are more contextual. "The after-effect of just small changes are massive," he concluded.