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Google Maps adding new features, including augmented reality for (eventually) getting around airports and malls

You may not be traveling or hanging out in malls much these days, but Google Maps is preparing for a return to such places in the not-so-distant future: It’s rolling out a new feature that uses augmented reality to navigate malls, airports, and train stations.

On Tuesday, Google unveiled the feature, called Indoor Live View, which shows graphics like arrows, directions, and icons on your smartphone’s screen, laid atop a camera view of the world around you. It can be used to help you find a store in a shopping mall or a bathroom at an airport, for instance. The feature is more interactive than Google Maps’ existing indoor maps, and expands on a similar feature for city-street navigation that launched in 2019. It’s available for Android and iOS users at some malls in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Long Island, Seattle, and Newark, New Jersey. Google said it will be available for use at a limited number of airports, malls, and transit stations in Tokyo and Zurich in the coming months.

The feature is among a host of changes Google has made in recent years to Maps as it continues to position its popular app as one that goes far beyond offering maps and turn-by-turn directions.

Russell Dicker, a Google Maps director of product, said during a briefing with journalists on Monday that the AR feature will help users find a range of things indoors, such as a baggage claim or a train platform at a transit station, or, in a mall, directions to a store on a certain floor.

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 and inside buildings, however, these technologies may not be as effective (GPS, for example, relies on having a line of sight to pass along radio signals from far-off satellites to your phone).

Instead, Live View relies on artificial intelligence and Google’s massive inventory of Street View images: As the company explained in the past, a user holds up their phone so the app can match details about landmarks with those visuals that the app has already captured. Google Maps uses machine learning to determine which details are likely to be the same and which are best to ignore. Google said the indoor version of Live View also takes into consideration the user’s altitude and where objects are inside a building. Once the app has a good idea of where you are, it can overlay virtual images to help you find your way to your destination.

Other features Google Maps showed off Tuesday that will be available in coming months include the ability to see the weather or air quality as you plan a trip within the app. Later this year, the app will also show users the most eco-conscious driving route, by default, if a route that uses less fuel (which will be determined by considering factors such as road incline and traffic density) is estimated to be about as fast as another route. Google said it’s working with the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory for the feature.

“By and large what we’re seeing in our work so far is that for around half of routes we’re able to find an option that’s more eco-friendly with minimal or no time cost tradeoff,” Dicker said.

The company also said it’s conducting a pilot program with Kroger-owned supermarket Fred Meyer to integrate its existing curbside grocery pickup with Google Maps. For instance, the app could continuously update the store about your estimated arrival time and let you check in through the app when you arrive. The pilot will run this summer in some stores in Portland, Oregon.

These features follow several others that were introduced earlier this month that focus on encouraging users to post more of their own content to the mapping app; these included making it simpler to share photos of places you visit.

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