Google will add our mental maps as a layer to Google Maps

Google is making Maps more and more personal for the past few years. Connecting it to our cognitive understanding of geographic space would be a natural step forward.

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Google Maps Brain Cognitive Mental MapHow do we navigate from A to B without GPS? How did we do it in the pre-GPS era? 15 years ago to avoid getting lost I used to search for things around me such as street names, road intersections, or landmarks on a paper map. This way I could figure out where I was on a map, plan routes and explore nearby geography.

When you are in a new place in a little while, you start to memorize particular places around, and you begin to understand where things are in relation to each other. You don’t need a map anymore; you have a good feeling about your whereabouts. This process is called cognitive mapping, which is precisely what it sounds like: your mental model of a particular geography.

People naturally use cognitive maps, when giving directions. GPS navigation will tell you: “in 600 meters turn left”. A person will tell you: “take the first left behind the Marriott hotel.” When you want to meet with a friend, you will tell him over the phone “let’s meet in front of that vegan place, where we had that amazing pad thai last month” rather than “let’s meet at 40.716962, -73.991392”. Our brains perceive geography in the form of memories, distinctive landmarks, and shared experiences rather than coordinate systems.

With that in mind making more human navigation interactions based on elements of cognitive mapping has been a holy grail for all mature GPS navigation providers. Implementing such a solution is however extremely challenging. You need to code and decode a cognitive understanding of geographic space in the same way that humans do. From a geographic database perspective, such a data would have to be created by people who understand local area very well and updated very quickly. There is only one mapping company that has a potential to do that – Google.

Google has enough data to understand our experiences and memories related to particular places. All of this data could be used to translate our personal cognitive maps into a data layer that Google would use to make Maps more personal. We are not yet there, but the company has recently started to experiment with a similar approach. Multiple users have been reporting that Google Maps has begun offering directions based on local landmarks:

Google is making Maps more and more personal for the past few years. It already knows your POI preferences, it shows your hotel reservations and traffic to our common destination based on our mobility patterns. Connecting it to our cognitive understanding of geographic space would be a natural step forward.

There is, however, a certain catch. Google is not a charity organization. It spends billions of dollars annually to offer us Maps for free, but at the same time, it’s the largest advertising company in the world. Combining our mental maps with location-based advertising might be tempting. In fact, it seems that this scenario is also being tested in parallel:

At this stage, we don’t know if this is a small scale test or a broader initiative. It shows however what we might expect in the upcoming months. It also shows that Google is far before it’s competitors in the GPS navigation market.

Aleks Buczkowski
I'm a professional always thinking outside the box and a self-confessed gadget addict. As a son of a professor of cartography I was surrounded by maps all my life and as a result spatial way of thinking and seeing reality is naturally embedded in who I am.