Apple Maps indoor mapping will never let you lost anywhere
Dont you remember what a joke it was when Apple Map was released.
These days, Apple Maps isn’t as embarrassing and actually pretty feature-packed. And in some ways it’s ahead of Google Maps (yeah, I can’t believe it either). Case in point: indoor mapping for airports and shopping malls.
Mapping the outside world isn’t easy, but compared to indoor mapping, it’s a piece of cake.
Whereas you only need to drive a bunch of camera-equipped cars up and down streets to take pictures and pull data from satellite imagery — I’m over-simplifying things here, so please don’t drag me — creating accurate maps for indoor spaces with multiple floors is much more difficult.
It’s why nobody — not even Google, which introduced indoor mapping for retailers, transit hubs, and malls in Google Maps for Android way back in 2011 — has really done it very well yet.
Apple’s first stab at indoor maps is limited to airports and malls, but I think it’s a good first start. I’d rather have it done really well than done in a half-baked way the way Google Maps’ implementation is right now.
As of Thursday, Apple Maps has detailed indoor maps for 34 U.S. and international airports. Apple’s also added floor plans for malls in nine U.S. cities, but doesn’t list any specific ones. (I guess you’ll have to go to your local mall and find out?) You can find a list of all airports that have Apple Maps indoor mapping on Apple’s website here.
The tech giant invited me to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York to walk through JetBlue’s Terminal 5 of gates, shops, and restaurants to check out indoor mapping for myself.
I was extremely skeptic at first, but after trying it out, I’m inclined to say they might have just figured out how to make navigating through airports a little less stressful.
Reducing pre-flight stress
I think most people will agree with me when I say airports aren’t exactly places anyone really wants to spend a lot of time in (unless maybe you’re The Points Guy living it up in a first class lounge).
Despite having a zillion signs to guide you, airports are messy and invite stress even if you’re the really chill type. There’s a good chance you’ll walk in the wrong direction from where your gate is. Or you’ll walk down a seemingly-endless terminal looking for dining or a shop, only to discover the options are lame.
Having indoor maps of airports, however, alleviates a lot of this pre-flight stress and anxiety that I and many people feel after passing through security check.
Instead of wasting time wandering through a terminal looking for, say, a Starbucks at 7:30 a.m., you can literally fire up Apple Maps and look at the floor plan of your terminal and see if there is one inside, what time it’s open, and where it’s located.
Just knowing what’s inside of an airport — like what your dining and shopping options are or where the restrooms are located — relative to where your boarding gate is makes a big difference in informing travelers on how best to use their time.
Indoor mapping works exactly as you’d expect it to. Opening up Apple Maps when you’re in an airport with indoor mapping reveals a “Look Inside” button listed underneath the terminal name.
Tap it and you’ll be brought to a map of the ground floor. As you zoom in on the map, you’ll see additional location points for things like restrooms, baggage claim areas, staircases, dining and shopping, and boarding gates.
Tapping on the “1” (ground floor) opens up indoor maps for all the different floors available. In the case of Terminal 5, I could bring up floor plans for four levels and one underground floor.
Areas that have indoor maps are presented in white. Everything else is grayed out so there’s no confusion as to what information you’re looking at.
Your location appears as a blue dot and there’s also a directional arrow that turns as your iOS device moves, just like for outdoor maps.
From there, you can take a look at the airport terminal shops and layout in 2D or swipe down with two fingers for a 3D view.
Apple says it’s working with the owners of supported airports (in my case, the Port Authority) to nail down this feature. I’m told indoor maps in airports and malls are accurate down to three meters, and constantly updated when old vendors close and new ones open up.
The feature is by no means perfect, though. It doesn’t tell you if there’s moving walkways ahead, where seats/tables are, or where USB charging ports might be. These are minor things that could easily be added in later, but would have been great today.
I also wish there was a way know see the time to indoor destination. When I’m at the airport and I’m trying to figure out if I should goto that McDonald’s on that’s nowhere near my gate, my decision usually comes down to whether or not I have time to get there and come back. It’s nice knowing where the McDonald’s is located inside of the terminal, but an estimation of how long it’d take to get there and maybe even how long the line would be during certain hours would be extra useful.
For security purposes, indoor maps doesn’t show everything. Things that are irrelevant for travelers, like maintenance closets or staff office rooms aren’t included in the schematics.
And speaking of security, Apple says it’s not tracking your every movement within an airport or mall, monitoring where you’ve eaten or what stores you’ve stepped foot in, because it respects customer privacy. Unlike Google, Apple’s main business isn’t advertising and it doesn’t need to sell your main data to companies in order to keep the lights on.
I’m also told that the navigating features are done securely on your device and not associated with your Apple ID in any way. So that’s another plus over any Google Maps tracking. This approach to privacy is no different from iBeacons, the little Bluetooth transmitters that vendors can install to ping your iOS device when it’s within range. They collect no personally identifiable information.
A big step forward for mapping
What Apple’s doing with indoor maps may not seem like a big deal, but it is. It’s constrained to 2D and 3D for now, but just imagine what it could look like if Apple adds augmented reality to it. It could be immersive as what Google’s promising with Tango-based Visual Positioning Service (VPS) mapping system.
Like how Google Maps changed the way we navigate the world, I predict indoor mapping will be just as impactful.
To the people rolling their eyes, look, I know what you’re thinking: “Airports have had indoor maps for years… inside of kiosks”. True as that might be, that’s also an impersonal and antiquated way of providing information.
First, you need to find a kiosk. Then, you need to touch a display — big as it may be — that’s been poked at by who knows how many people with who knows what germs. And after it all, you still need to figure out which direction to go.
I’d much rather have all this information in my phone that’s accessible from anywhere and is smart enough to know where I’m at so that I can feel confident I won’t get lost.
Perhaps, the most ironic thing of all was finding an airport kiosk that was broken and couldn’t display the terminal’s map.
If that’s not enough to sell you on how powerful indoor mapping is, nothing will.