Google’s Michael Jones on How Maps Became Personal

Here’s a great interview with my former CEO/CTO, the brilliant Michael T. Jones, in the Atlantic magazine. Link goes to the extended version.

[BTW, The Atlantic seems to be on a tear about Google lately (in a good way), with John Hanke and Niantic last month and lots on Glass recently as well. With that and Google getting out of federal antitrust hot water, it seems they’re definitely doing something right on the PR front.]

Quoting Michael on the subject of personal maps:

The major change in mapping in the past decade, as opposed to in the previous 6,000 to 10,000 years, is that mapping has become personal.

It’s not the map itself that has changed. You would recognize a 1940 map and the latest, modern Google map as having almost the same look. But the old map was a fixed piece of paper, the same for everybody who looked at it. The new map is different for everyone who uses it. You can drag it where you want to go, you can zoom in as you wish, you can switch modes–traffic, satellite—you can fly across your town, even ask questions about restaurants and directions. So a map has gone from a static, stylized portrait of the Earth to a dynamic, inter-active conversation about your use of the Earth.

I think that’s officially the Big Change, and it’s already happened, rather than being ahead.

It’s a great article and interview, but I’m not so sure about the “already happened” bit. I think there’s still a lot more to do. From what I see and can imagine, maps are not that personal yet. Maps are still mostly objective today. Making maps more personal ultimately means making them more subjective, which is quite challenging but not beyond what Google could do.

He’s of course 100% correct that things like layers, dynamic point of view (e.g., 2D pan, 3D zoom) and the like have made maps much more customized and personally useful than a typical 1940s paper map, such that a person can make them more personal on demand. But we also have examples from the 1940s and even the 1640s that are way more personal than today.

For example, consider the classic pirate treasure map at right, or an architectural blueprint of a home, or an X-ray that a surgeon marks up to plan an incision  (not to mention the lines drawn ON the patient — can’t get much more personal than that).

Michael is right that maps will become even more personal, but only after one or two likely things happen next IMO: companies like Google know enough about you to truly personalize your world for you automatically, AND/OR someone solves personalization with you, collaboratively, such that you have better control of your personal data and your world.

This last bit goes to the question of the “conversation,” which I’ll get to by the end.

First up, we should always honor the value that Google’s investments in “Ground Truth” have  brought us, where other companies have knowingly devolved or otherwise strangled their own mapping projects, despite the efforts of a few brave souls (e.g., to make maps cheaper to source and/or more personal to deliver). But “Ground Truth” is, by its very nature, objective. It’s one truth for everyone, at least thus far.

We might call the more personalized form of truth “Personal Truth” — hopefully not to confuse it with religion or metaphysics about things we can’t readily resolve. It concerns “beliefs” much of the time, but beliefs about the world vs. politics or philosophy. It’s no less grounded in reality than ground truth. It’s just a ton more subjective, using more personal filters to view narrow and more personally-relevant slices of the same [ultimately objective] ground truth. In other words, someone else’s “personal truth” might not be wrong to you, but wrong for you.

Right now, let’s consider what a more personal map might mean in practice.

A theme park map may be one of the best modern (if not cutting edge) examples of a personal map in at least one important sense — not that it’s unique per visitor (yet) — but that it conveys extra personally useful information to one or more people, but certainly not to everyone.

It works like this. You’re at the theme park. You want to know what’s fun and where to go. Well, here’s a simplified depiction of what’s fun and where to go, leaving out the crowds, the lines, the hidden grunge and the entire real world outside the park.  It answers your biggest contextual questions without reflecting “ground truth” in any strict sense of the term.

Case in point: the “Indiana Jones” ride above is actually contained in a big square building outside the central ring of the park you see here. But yet you only see the entrance/exit temple. The distance you travel to get to and from the ride is just part of the normal (albeit long) line. So Disney safely elides that seemingly irrelevant fact.

Who wants to bet that ground truth scale of the Knotts Berry map is anywhere near reality?

Now imagine that the map can be dynamically customized to reveal only what you’d like or want to see right now. You have toddlers in tow? Let’s shrink most of the rollercoasters and instead blow up the kiddie land in more detail. You’re hungry? Let’s enhance the images of food pavilions with yummy food photos. For those into optimizing their experience, let’s also show the crowds and queues visually, perhaps in real-time.

A Personal Map of The World is one that similarly shows “your world” — the places and people you care most about or are otherwise relevant to you individually, or at least people like you, collectively.

Why do you need to see the art museum on your map if you don’t like seeing art? Why do you need to see the mall if you’re not going shopping or hanging out?

The answer, I figure, is that Google doesn’t really know what you do or don’t care about today or tomorrow, at least not yet. You might actually want to view fine art or go shopping, or plan an outing with someone else who does. That’s often called “a date.” No one wants to “bubble” you, I hope. So you currently get the most conservative and broadest view possible.

How would Google find out what you plan to do with a friend or spouse unless you searched for it? Well, you could manually turn on a layer: like “art” or “shopping” or “fun stuff.” But a layer is far more like a query than a conversation IMO — “show me all of the places that sell milk or cheese” becomes the published “dairy layer” that’s both quite objective and not much more personal than whether someone picks Google or Bing as their search engine.

Just having more choices about how to get information isn’t what makes something personal. It makes it more customized perhaps… For truly personal experiences, you might think back to the treasure map at the top. It’s about the treasure. The map exists to find it.

Most likely, you want to see places on the map that Google could probably already guess you care about: your home, your friends’ homes, your favorite places to go. You’d probably want to see your work and the best commute options with traffic at the appropriate times, plus what’s interesting near those routes, like places that sell milk or flowers on the way home.

Are those more personal than an art layer or even a dairy layer? Perhaps.

Putting that question aside for a moment, an important and well known information design technique focuses on improving “signal to noise” by not just adding information but more importantly removing things of lesser import. You can’t ever show everything on a map, so best to show what matters and make it clear, right?

City labels, for example, usually deter adjacent labels of less importance (e.g., neighborhoods) to better stand out. You can actually see a ring of “negative space” around an important label if it’s done properly.

In the theme park map example, we imagined some places enlarged and stylized to better convey their meaning to you, like with the toddler-friendly version we looked at. That’s another way to enhance signal over noise — make it more personally relevant. Perhaps, in the general case, your house is not just a literal photo of the structure from above, but rather represented by a collage of your family, some great dinners you remember, your comfy bed or big TV, or all of the above — whatever means the most to you.

That’s also more personal, is it not?

Another key set of tools in this quest concerns putting you in charge of your data, so you can edit that map to suit and even pick from among many different contexts.

Google already has a way to edit in their “my maps” feature. But even with the vast amount of information they collect about us, it’s largely a manual or right-click-to-add kind of effort. Why couldn’t they draw an automatic “my maps” based on what they know about us already? Why isn’t that our individual “base layer” whenever we’re signed in, collecting up our searches in a editable visual history of what we seem to care about most?

Consider also, why don’t they show subjective distances instead of objective ones, esp. on your mobile devices? This is another dimension of “one size fits all” vs. the truly personal experience to which we aspire.

A “subjective distance” map also mirrors the theme park examples above. If you’re driving on a highway, places of interest (say gas stations) six miles down the road but near an off-ramp are really much “closer” than something that’s perhaps only 15 feet off the highway, but 20 feet below, behind a sound wall and a maze of local streets and speed bumps.

How do you depict that visually? Well, for one, you need to start playing more loosely with real world coordinates and scale, as those cartoon maps above already do quite well. Google doesn’t seem to play with scale yet (not counting the coolness of continuous zoom — the third dimension). I’m not saying it’s easy, given how tiled map rendering works today. But it’s certainly possible and likely desirable, especially with “vector” and semantic techniques.

For a practical and well known example, consider subway maps. They show time-distance and conceptual-distance while typically discarding Cartesian relationships (which is the usual mode for most maps we use today).

I have no idea where these places (below) are in the real world, and yet I could use this to estimate travel time and get somewhere interesting. And in this case, I don’t even need a translator.

Consider next the role of context. Walking is a very different context than driving to compute and depict more personalized distance relationships. If I’m walking, I want to see where can I easily walk and what else is on the way. I almost certainly don’t want to walk two hours past lunch to reach a better restaurant. I’m hungry now. And I took the train to work today, don’t you remember?

Google must certainly know most of that by Now (and by “Now” I mean “Google Now”). So why restrict its presence to impersonal pop up cards?

Similarly, restaurants nearby are not filtered by Cartesian distance, but rather by what’s in this neighborhood, in my interest graph, and near something else I might also want to walk to (e.g., dinner, movie, coffee == date) based on the kinds of places we (my wife and I) might like.

Context is everything in the realm of personal maps. And it seems context must be solicited in some form. It’s extremely hard to capture automatically partly because we often have more than one active context at a time — I’m a husband, a father, a programmer, a designer, a consumer, a commuter, and a friend all at the same time. So what do I want right now?

Think about how many times have you bought a one-time gift on Amazon only to see similar items come up in future recommendations. That’s due to an unfortunate lack of context about why I bought that and what I want right now. On the other hand, when I finish reading a book on my Kindle, Amazon wisely assumes I’m in the mood to buy another one and makes solid recommendations. That’s also using personal context, by design.

The trick, it turns out, is figuring out how to solicit this information in a way that is not creepy, leaky, or invasive. That same “fun factor” Michael talks about that made Google Earth so compelling is very useful for addressing this problem too.

Given what we’ve seen, I think Google is probably destined to go the route of its “Now” product to address this question. Rather than have a direct conversation with users to learn their real-time context and intent and thus truly personalize maps, search, ads, etc.. , Google will use every signal and machine learning trick they can to more passively sift that information from the cumulative data streams around you — your mails, your searches, your location, and so on.

I don’t mean to be crude, but it’s kind of like learning what I like to eat from living in my sewer pipes. Why not just ask me, inspector?

I mean, learning where my house is from watching my phone’s GPS is a nice machine learning trick, but I’m also right there in the phone book. Or again, just ask me if you think you can provide me with better service by using that information. If you promise not to sell it or share it and also delete it when I want you to, I’m more than happy to share, esp if it improves my view of the world.

So why not just figure out how to better ask and get answers from people, like other people do?

If the goal is to make us smarter, then why not start with what WE, the users, already know, individually and collectively?

And more importantly, is it even possible to make more personal maps without making the whole system more personal, more human?

The answer to what Google can and will do probably comes down to a mix of their company culture, science, and the very idea of ground truth. Data is more factual than opinions, by definition. Algorithms are more precise than dialog. It’s hard to gauge, test, and improve based on anyone’s opinions or anything subjective like what someone “means” or “wants” vs. what they “did” based on the glimpses one can collect. Google would need a way of “indexing” people, perhaps in real-time, which is not likely to happen for some time. Or will it?

When it comes to “Personal Truth,” vs. “Ground Truth” perception and context of users are what matter most. And the best way to learn and represent the information is without a doubt to engage people more directly, more humanely, with personalized information on the way in and on the way out.

This, I think, it what Michael is driving at when he uses the word “conversation.” But with complete respect to Michael, the Geo team, and Google as a whole, I think it’s still quite early days — but I’m also looking forward to what comes next.

via Google’s Michael Jones on How Maps Became Personal – James Fallows – The Atlantic.

Mapping The Entertainment Ecosystems of Apple, Microsoft, Google & Amazon

Without commenting on the companies themselves, this is definitely worth reading for yourselves (Thanks Daniel!):

A convergence towards Apple’s business model

It’s interesting to note that all four of the companies listed have various different core business models (hardware, search, retail, software) but they have all in recent years come to create personal computing devices with their own operating system running on top of the device and additionally these entertainment ecosystems. Five years ago, Apple was the only one doing this complete trio of device + OS + entertainment services.

Mapping The Entertainment Ecosystems of Apple, Microsoft, Google & Amazon.

3D Photo Booth

The ultimate vision among 3D printing enthusiasts is the Replicator from Star Trek (perhaps combined with the Teleporter for the live scanning part, if not the “beaming” itself). For others, it’s all a big fax machine or laser printer, just in 3D, designed to save us time, travel, and money. For most of us, it’s a way to build things that never existed before, a supreme reification of intangible ideas into physical reality.

The state of the art is still somewhat short of all of those goals, but advancing rapidly, focusing on cost, speed, resolution, and even articulation of parts. Making 3D figurines of you and your loved ones is an interesting stop along the way.

The truth is that people have thought about 3D scanning and printing for decades, and this is often a top request (I can’t tell you how many people thought they came up with this idea).

The devil is always in the details, at least for now. For example, how does the 3D printer in this Japanese “3D photo booth” apply subtle color gradiations to make your skin look real? Some affordable commercial 3D printers can do a small number of matte colors, one at a time. High end full color 3D printers are coming down in price. How does the software stitch a solid 3D likeness from multiple stereoscopic images? (hint: they say you need to stand still while they take multiple photos or video)

But it doesn’t really matter, as long as it’s economical and people want to buy these at some price, which I figure they will. FWIW, 32,000 yen = about $400 by my math. What would you pay?

Process | OMOTE 3D SHASIN KAN. (via Gizmodo)

Optical camouflage turns car’s back seat transparent

The goal of making the car invisible is a great one. Blind spots create significant hazards. For example, just last night, I almost opened my car door into a speeding biker in SF (a headlight on the bike might have helped).

But I think this is one of those applications that may work better with HMDs than projectors. Imagine what happens when you put kids in the back seat. Imagine just trying to keep these seats clean enough or clear enough so the projection works properly.

Sure, it’ll be a few years before HMDs are acceptable enough to drive with them, but the near-term version is something much simpler to prove out. Here’s the idea. [I originally spec’d this out back at Worldesign 20 years ago and always wanted this purely for the thrill. It’s not entirely economical on its own, but it will happen someday, I guarantee.]

Imagine an airplane fitted with a full 360*180 degrees of video capture, more or less like these researchers want to do, such that we can digitize a complete spherical video feed. That’s a few wide angle lenses with sufficient overlaps and computing hardware to stitch in real-time.

Imagine an HMD per (willing) passenger that can index into that video based on where you’re looking. Boom. Your airplane is now invisible. You’re flying free and alone at 35,000 feet. With mixed-reality, we can exclude or occlude your body, your family, and maybe the seats beneath you from the video composition to enhance the realism without ruining the view.

The same trick will work better for the car, once HMDs are legal to drive with. Forget the back seat. Let’s make the whole car invisible, enhance the road while we’re at it, and reduce any other visual noise that might distract you from driving well.

Now, even wearing earphones is presently illegal in most places — their purpose is to distract the listener from the world, not enhance their driving. Practically speaking, it’s hard to hear that on-coming semi to your left when you’re blasting “Highway to Hell.”

See-through HMDs should (and can) no doubt be aware of whether you’re driving or not and limit your activities to only the helpful ones. No “AR Tetris” for you unless the car is on autopilot. The whole point is to actually improve your situational awareness, not to diminish it, so don’t expect this to be a literal view of the world as much as a visually enhanced one. Such a system should be helping you become aware of that same semi, finding obstacles, warning of dangers, highlighting your path and so on. Blade-runner had it half-right. There’s no reason to limit this display to a monitor.

Of course, we may have those self-driving cars before then. Personally, I’m a bigger believer in augmenting people’s abilities instead of putting us in the back seat, so to speak. But we can and will have both, I expect.

Optical camouflage turns car’s back seat transparent. (via gizmag)


Why Microsoft and Internet Explorer need WebGL (and vice-versa)

I was disappointed today to read the headline “Microsoft refuses to endorse WebGL, labels it ‘harmful’,” which itself is derived from a Microsoft security blog post titled “WebGL Considered Harmful,” which itself parrots a security scare report from a few weeks back.

Is WebGL actually harming your computer in any way? I doubt that’s a serious or credible claim. And, frankly, if Microsoft has taken a formal position against WebGL, no one I know got the memo.

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Read/Write World

It’s not often since I started at Microsoft 3 years ago that I get to blog about what I’m working on. It’s not that anyone had ever explicitly told me not to, but sharing my daily web research and observations publicly (even if the source links were already public) would have likely compromised the secrecy I’d agreed to, since I tend to blog about whatever’s most on my mind. [And forget twitter. My tl;drs alone are more than 140 characters]

With my current project, the situation is much improved blog-wise. We concluded recently that the best way to accomplish our goals was to be open and even solicit cooperation from outside. Quite a concept!

The project’s name is Read/Write World.

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The Unauthorized History of Virtual Worlds

I wrote the following essay to help us get going crafting a review paper for a major comp-sci journal. ‘Us’ in this case was Blaise Aguera y Arcas, one of the founders of PhotoSynth and Virtual Earth’s new architect, and Jaron Lanier, one of the pioneers of VR, who thought of pretty much everything before I became conscious of the world.

Now, I should caution that Blaise didn’t ultimately want to use this text and Jaron equally had issues with it. The tone is all wrong for an academic journal, plus Jaron disputes some of the dates I recorded from my research (he may well know better). But I felt it might at least be entertaining to RP readers, so I’m posting it for you to enjoy. Still, don’t take any of it as official, just me being a smart-ass.


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The Singularity is Nigh

IEEE Spectrum: Special Report: The Singularity

I’ll post more when I get a second, but it’ll take some time to digest.

For what it’s worth, my present take on the Singularity is a cross of Vinge’s and something Stross said at a WorldCon party (or elsewhere), and Kurzweil, despite some inherent contradictions:

1. The future beyond a singularity is fundamentally unknowable. That’s the whole point. If we can accurately describe what’s past a so-called singularity, then it’s just your basic run-of-the-mill evolution, revolution or “disruptive” sea-change, which happen all the time.

2. People are good at extrapolating linearly, not exponentially. We can predict a few years out, but after that, reality diverges wildly from our naturally limited mental models.

3. We’ve already gone through multiple “singularities” throughout history, though perhaps increasing in frequency. Singularities are never the end of anything, but a new platform on which to complain about our current ways of life and ponder the color of the pasture on the far side of the next singularity.

Before their introduction, could people have predicted how the world would change with Writing? Or Computers? Or Corporations? Could they have even predicted the invention itself? If not, then these may also be singularities, points in history that we can only understand by looking back, not forward, like the approaching event horizon of a black hole.

That is not to say that some visionaries don’t imagine a world past that event horizon or see the event coming. But it’s all speculation, cautionary or wishful fiction at best.

Even the inventor of the mechanical computer, beyond genius for his day, could not have predicted word processors, virtual reality, AI, or even the CAD software that would have unquestionably helped design his mechanical computer.

One could argue that the One True Singularity will occur only when we (our heirs or errs) become smart enough to see through to the future beyond, i.e., the real Singularity is the last Singularity we will ever know.


The Future of Virtual Worlds

So my friend Cory Ondrejka (co-creator of Second Life) started an interesting thread last week that I didn’t see covered as widely as it should. Here are his slides — alas I didn’t get to hear the narration that went with it, but I can guess.

What he seems to be describing is apparently not too far from what I’ve been writing about for a while. The part I’m still skeptical about is the life-logging, and probably because of my own preference for privacy. You’ll notice I don’t twitter. I have a hard time believing anyone would even care to follow what I do from moment to moment. And I think careful editing is the secret to any compelling narrative. I just don’t want to put gigabytes of sub-standard, often mundane, prose out there into the digital firmament.

But putting that aside, the germ (and/or gem) of what he’s saying, and the part I totally agree with, is this notion of a pervasive synthesis of augmented, mirror, and alternate realities — no need to distinguish between those arbitrary categories. Turns out, there’s an old word for this which I think we can now safely revive to summarize the intent:


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