Natural Search Blog

New Terrain Feature on Google Maps

The Google Operating System blog alerted us to how Google Maps quietly added a new “Terrain” button and removed the “Hybrid” button which combined Satellite and Map content. The official Google Lat Long blog reports that the “hybrid” feature can be accessed by clicking the Satellite button and the clicking on/off the “Show labels” box that appears in a dynamic drop-down.

The Terrain content can look pretty dynamic for mountain areas and other places with dramatic elevation contrasts like this area for the Grand Canyon:

Grand Canyon Terrain
(click to enlarge)

I’m not sure just how valuable this is for the majority of users — the content isn’t necessarily all that worthwhile compared with the Satellite pics that were already built in. Compare the three different views for the Grand Canyon area:

Google Maps - Terrain, Map, Satellite views
(click to enlarge)

In dense downtown areas, the Terrain tab shows the ghost wireframe outlines of buildings. This was already showing up in Google Maps for many metro areas when you zoomed in. Check out this pic of the downtown Dallas area — the Trinity River area which runs adjacent to the downtown area is pretty vague/blank in terms of relaying good elevation info:

Google Maps Dallas Terrain
(click to enlarge)

The Terrain maps somewhat resemble the traditional, detailed USGS (United States Geological Survey) maps of the US, but they leave off a lot of specific details of elevations which help make the USGS maps so useful/valuable.

It’s an interesting development for the maps interface, but it feels to me like a bit of a half-step towards more helpful levels of details. People who do orienteering as a sport would not find the addition helpful, and wouldn’t be able to use the maps for that sport. As things stand with this blurry level of detail added by the new Terrain feature, this probably isn’t adding much more usefulness than what was already available through the satellite pix, IMHO.
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