iPhone's New Maps Might Look Like Your Napkin Doodles

Apple's latest patent for "schematic maps" could dramatically simplify the interface of its Maps app.

The Google-powered precision of the Maps app for iPhone and iPad is so ubiquitous that it's hard to think of digital maps looking any other way. But Apple, preternatural innovator (and now-enemy of Google) that it is, may change that perception soon. A recent patent application uncovered by AppleInsider describes something called "schematic maps," which is a fancy way of saying that when you launch Maps on your future iPhone 6, what you see may look more like it was scrawled on the back of a napkin than generated by satellite.

The basic idea of "schematic maps" is that maps on smartphones these days are too info-dense. Think about it: When you boot up Maps on your iPhone, you see a whole universe of information that's not directly relevant to the task of getting from point A to point B: streets 10 blocks away that you'll won't cross, names of businesses you didn't ask for, even the ghostly 3-D shapes of buildings.

Compare that to what you'd do if a friend asked you to draw them a map: You'd sketch out a diagram (probably not to scale) of the main street(s) between point A and point B, throw in a few hash marks to represent relevant cross streets, and maybe a box or "X" along the way to indicate landmarks for orientation—and that's it. Much less information, and not accurate to the meter, but much more direct. (These "strip maps" are actually so efficient that the Army teaches tank drivers and soldiers to draw them correctly.)

That's what Apple wants to do with schematic maps: make its Maps app act less like a server-powered Eye of Sauron and more like your friend scribbling on a bar napkin. Obviously the final product of whatever "schematic maps" turns out to be will look much nicer than these patent illustrations. But not by much, at least not in functional terms: the whole idea is to make them as diagrammatically uber-simplified as possible. And with less screen space devoted to rendering accurate-but-irrelevant information, more can be devoted to displaying useful markups to the schematic, like a line that says "11 miles" to visually indicate how long you should stay on Main Street before you hit that T-intersection. Or displaying your final destination as a nice big box on the map instead of a tiny red pin. The latter is "correct"; but the former, especially on a teensy screen that you have to stab at with big sausage-fingers, may be more useful.

Of course, by throwing away all that "irrelevant" information and scale-accuracy, schematic maps will have to be very, very good at parsing the input given to them — because everything in the periphery of Point A and Point B will be invisible (or incomprehensible, given the scale distortions). That's one good thing about Google-style digital maps: If you change your mind in midstream, or just want to explore them in an open-ended way, you've got unlimited freedom; the app doesn't try to "think" for you. Apple, of course, goes the opposite direction: Its relentless march towards unifying and simplifying its iOS and OS X interfaces means that "thinking for you" is an unavoidable part of the deal. (Granted, you can imagine all sorts of clever ways that Apple might allow a map to load only the data you want. Imagine if tapping on another, less detailed area brought it into higher relief, with new landmarks.)

Will schematic maps cause jubilation or scorn among users? As with every innovative interface, the answer is probably both.

[Read more at AppleInsider; Top image by JD Hancock]

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