What happened?

Soon, users of Google Maps will be able to directly contact (local) businesses through a chat function in the app (e.g. to check the availability of, or pre-order, a specific product). This provides these businesses with an easy means of digitizing their customer contact, and developing into some kind of hybrid brick-and-mortar/online store. More importantly, perhaps, this move is another sign that digital maps are developing into major interfaces between us and the world around us. As such, maps will increasingly replace traditional internet browsers and dedicated apps for social media and other uses.

What does this mean?

Last year, we already noted how ever-richer, more dynamic and interactive maps are integral to the ways in which the internet is increasingly relevant to our everyday lives. While the digital and the physical realm were strictly separated in the early days of the internet (as engrained in the concept and name of Second Life), today we expect digital services to be of immediate practical value, whenever and wherever we are. Digital maps meet this need through a kind of “Augmented Virtuality” in which the virtual (i.e. a digital map) is augmented with (real-time) information from the physical realm (e.g. live traffic information and shop-owners answering questions).

What’s next?

The increasing relevance of digital maps also sheds new light on the concept of Augmented Reality. The common conception of AR entails digital information that is added to “reality” by means of smartphone screens or smart glasses. This, however, pre-supposes that a user is already within eyeshot of a specific place or object and is thus of (fundamentally) limited value. By contrast, the Augmented Virtuality that is offered by digital maps allows for users to access information from any distance and decide whether or not it makes sense to go there. It is thus no wonder that AR is still limited to niche applications such as in gaming (e.g. Pokémon Go) and the military, while the AV of digital maps has already found its way onto Main Street.