• Maps Live View is an AR overlay that uses your phone's camera.
  • It’s useful, but you can always just look at the real world with your own eyes. 
  • Putting everything online is better for Google than it is for you and me. 

Closeup on a hand holding a smartphone that displays Google Maps.

Google Maps' new Live View is an impressive feature that gives us one more way not to pay attention to the world around us. 

Live View gives us a peek at the future of augmented reality (AR). You hold your phone up, and the app scans the surroundings through your camera and overlays map data on the live view. The idea is that you can find out more about your surroundings. But does this add useful data to the world or turn the street into one more Google Maps layer?

“We’re already so connected to our phones and tablets that we risk accidents on the daily because we’re too busy scrolling to pay attention when walking or driving. This new feature will make that worse,” Kyle MacDonald, VP at GPS tracking company Mojio, told Lifewire via email.

Head In Sand

Once, some years ago, I was so intent on following Google Maps’ direction down a dark village street that I stepped into a puddle that submerged and flooded my sneakers. This has since become a family joke, even though I’m the least likely person to whip out their phone for a quick hit of app-powered dopamine. 

Jokes aside, we already spend much of our lives looking at our phones. It makes sense on a daily subway commute, but on vacation or when walking around a new city, it’s a distraction at best, and a way to get your bag snatched or your pocket picked at worst. 

Live View is a pretty simple idea. Hold up the in-app camera, and if you see a dot over a location, tap it to see more detail. It’s an obvious extension of regular Google Maps, only instead of tapping on the map to learn more, you tap on the actual places virtually. And, of course, it can be very useful. You could, for instance, check the opening hours of a business. Or you could find out what kind of service they offer or what they sell. 

But of course, as the place is right in front of you, you could just cross the street and look at the sign on the door to see the opening hours or look through the window to check what kind of store/restaurant/business it is. As a human with experience in the world, you can tell much more about a place from seeing it IRL (in real life) than you can from a Google Maps page. 

Who Benefits?

Google Maps is one of the wonders of the modern world. Between its map layers, public-transport integration, fairly-accurate opening times, images, street view, and directions, it really brings the best of the internet to the real world. 

Google benefits every time you use it, gathering usage data and obviously your location, but the tradeoff is fine because the service is amazing, useful, and allows you both to navigate the place you are in and to explore from afar. But it seems that Live View is better for Google than it is for us, the users.

As mentioned above, it doesn't bring anything you couldn't get yourself from the existing maps layers in combination with your legs and eyes. And what's in it for Google? It's hard to believe that it won't gather plenty of street-level data based on the live camera feed, along with your phone's GPS, gyroscopes, and compass. That's super-valuable data. 

We're already so connected to our phones and tablets that we risk accidents on the daily because we're too busy scrolling to pay attention when walking or driving.

Not to say that this is a problem. Just that adding features like this that aren't so useful for the user can make an already confusing app even more bloated. Of course, more features are welcome, but only if they don't get in the way of the core purposes of the app—getting around and finding things. 

AR is an interesting idea. In one way, it enhances the world around us, either with visual overlays like this or by adding audio extras through headphones. But it could also be viewed as yet another way to grab our attention and keep us inside the commercial, always-monitored world of Google, Facebook, Apple, or whoever provides them. 

Instead, perhaps we should enjoy the real world as much as we can instead of letting it become yet another monetization opportunity for others? In the words of the great philosopher Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

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