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Google Maps: Bird Mode (twitter.com)
409 points by tosh 25 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 127 comments



Fun story. There's something to be said about the importance of naming. Google Maps likely set UX precedents for a lot of other map software to come, for better and worse. Had Google went with "Bird Mode" (and not trademarked the phrase) we would have probably seen it propagate throughout other map apps and the Internet at large.

To this day, I still see the floppy disk used to represent "save" even though we haven't used floppy disks for decades now. It's not uncommon to see it used in mobile apps, especially the less UX-obsessed ones you might find on the Android Play Store.

The next time you assign a name or symbol to something, give it some thought. You never know how others will use it.


This is an example where it has an impact beyond just the name, too. A lot of people think the “satellite” imagery actually comes from satellites, and thus vastly overestimate the imaging power of actual satellites.



Just because Planet Labs can do a little bit of this today, doesn't mean that for the past 15 years, Google's "Satellite" map had anything to do with real satellites.

Google literally lied to the world here, and screwed up the worldview of many millions of people.


3-5 m resolution is a lot worse than what people expect from ‘satellite’ images.


I would have preferred "aerial view" or even "bird mode" as well, but I think the negative impact of calling it "satellite view" is somewhat overstated here. It's not as if without Google Maps the general public would be much better informed about the limitations of satellite footage: spy thrillers and Hollywood have a long history of dramatizing their capabilities.


“Satellite” view has way better resolution than 3-5 meters in most places. That resolution would indicate that there might be a car, whereas Google’s “satellite” view has enough detail that you can take a good stab at the make and model of each car you see.


The floppy disk icon is scheduled for deletion the same year that we stop dialing our phones.


Only to be replaced with an "SD card" icon, which looks surprisingly similar to a floppy disk.


Do people still use SD cards? I am fairly certain my kids have no idea what they are.

I guess some hardcore photographers still swap SD cards in and out all the time. An area where wifi and cloud sync seems slow to proliferate.

I have a few cards hiding in some drawers somewhere and some stuck in an old SLR camera I have not turned on in a few years. But I literally have not seen any SD cards for a long time. And floppy disks... :)


I bet you only own iPhones :) All Androids I owned so far had micro-SD card slots.


There are actual several Android without slots. Including my OnePlus 5. But you do have the choice. I don't require a lot of storage (I just recently upgraded my desktop to over 1TB of space) so I'm fine with the 32 GB or whatever it is I get on board.


Yes well, I always make sure my phone have expansion slots. I would never buy something I can't expand without having to buy a completely new thing.


That's what I think is great. That everyone can chose what they want. I'd never need a storage extension before I'd want other things extended: GPU, CPU, RAM. Sadly those aren't extendable, so I'll buy new devices anyway and can reevaluate my storage needs


Oh, I was quite pissed at Apple back when I swapped my android phone for an iPhone and couldn't add an sd card. But just ordered enough built-in memory and 4-5 years on that was probably the last time I thought about SD cards.


I have an SD card slot in most point in shoots or micro SD. All my DSLRs that I’ve shot with offer CF as well.

It turns out, moving a few gigabytes of data is easier on an SD card, than having to do an iPhone style cloud transfer, especially if you’re shooting in bumfuck nowhere. Also, being able to carry a bunch of cards is handy.

Maybe it’s just a matter of binning, but I find CF cards to be way more reliable.


The amount of extra storage you can get on a phone by adding an SD card is quite liberating.


Yeah, it's much cheaper to buy a phone with a little built-in storage and add an SD card than to buy a phone with enough storage in the first place.


Yeah. Anything embedded, and if it has storage beyond on-die flash, microSD/microTF is it. People still use floppies, FWIW...and faxes shudder.


Right after we stop using "dashboard", eh. I doubt anyone here (me included) has ever seen a real dashboard.


Isn't that like saying "I doubt anyone here has ever seen a real ladder" because ladders aren't made out of coppiced staves but instead are formed from aluminium?

[Dashboards originally were wide mud-guards on the front of house drawn wagons, the same feature was fitted to early cars, eg Peugeot 2.]


The instrument panel in front of the driver in a car is still a 'real' dashboard.


Not in the 'original' sense of the word, which was the point: status webpages are twice removed from the original meaning.


There are two hard problems in computer science: cache invalidation, naming things, and off-by-one errors. — @codinghorror https://twitter.com/codinghorror/status/506010907021828096?s...


Re: floppy disks as save icons - if you show an elementary-school aged kid an actual floppy disk, they’re probably more likely to call it a 3D-printed save icon now. How things change!


I saw a floppy disk icon (no text) as the save button in the contacts app when adding a number on a friends (very) budget phone today when I was helping them add a number. I was surprised to say the least. Especially in such a critical OS app.

The fringes of Android Chinese manufacturer mods are a mess.


Bing Maps already has “bird’s eye” mode and has always had it as the name of the aerial imagery. Although theirs’ is totally a bird’s eye, you can see buildings from an angle instead of from the top.


Steve Jobs on how Apple got its name:

"And we were about three months late in filing a fictitious business name so I threatened to call the company Apple Computer unless someone suggested a more interesting name by five o'clock that day. Hoping to stimulate creativity. And it stuck. And that's why we're called Apple."


The added benefit is that at the time you end up appearing very early in the phone books if you company name starts with A. Example: Atari, Amiga... Amiga was also chosen, if I remember correctly, also because it made it appear before Atari (eternal rivals...).


ASUS has a similar origin. They were supposed to be called Pegasus, but they cut off the first 3 letters to be the first on alphabetical lists (I guess they didn't notice Acer's existence).


ASUS was founded by Acer employees, so they probably were aware of Acer :D


BRB, going to found AAA Ajax Automated Alphabetical Computer Company.

We'll dba AAAAAACC.

BTW, this explains the eternal popularity of Algol, even if they do keep changing the name: C/C++/Java/C#/Fortran-90...


The first page or so of phone books actually did use to be dominated by companies with names just like that: "AAAAA Landscaping," "AAAA A Taxi," "AAA AJ Accounting," etc.


If I remember correctly, Be (the creators of BeOS) was chosen because it would be the first word of the second letter in the phone book.


Reminds me of Banana Driven Development (h/t @pcalcado) -- if you can't come up with a good name right away, name it banana or some other fruit, or generally something that's so ridiculous that you just have to find a proper name for it.


And that’s how code goes live into production with names like “fuzzy giraffe”[0] baked into it, because there wasn’t time to go back and clean it up once a decision was made.

[0] true story from an employer of mine.


> We spend the next few days freaking out. We knew the feature was going to be huge, and now it had this name that everyone on both sides of the Satellite-vs-Aerial-Photography war agreed was silly and horrible. But it was decided.

Or maybe Sergey did that on purpose to force the teams to make a decision, "don't make me pull this car over" like.


That's what I think happened, pick what you want or you're getting bird mode.


Interestingly, Bing Maps uses the technically accurate "Aerial" term: https://www.bing.com/maps


This reminds me,

Is anyone else remembering when Bing Maps was REALLY good? It had a 45 degree view of cities that looked insanely good, like Sim City. When you zoomed in too close, it switched to aerial imagery.

And it was all buttery smooth. What happened to that product?


I was working for the company producing the dataset for Microsoft at the time [0]. I’m not really sure what happened to the product though, but at the time (circa 2007) it was indeed revolutionary.

[0] http://www.blomasa.com/


Yeah, that was great.

Bing also allowed OpenStreetMap to use its aerial imagery for tracing. This helped OSM a lot!

Google, on the other hand, asks users to help them with their proprietary data with no compensation.


Before Bing, Yahoo allowed OSM to trace.


And others followed suit later, e.g. DigitalGlobe


If I recall correctly, founder of OpenStreetMap worked at Microsoft at the time.


Yes, they called it bird's eye view. I think they got rid of it.


It's still there, in emasculated form, but instead of being able to browse around in oblique mode you have to right-click on a point of interest and select it.

And developers wonder why users "don't like change"...


I think Bing made this change because they only have "birds-eye" imagery for a few cities.


emasculated → emaciated?


Yes it was actually called “Bird’s Eye” view several years back.


and when they first introduced it, I think they called it "bird's eye" view.


That's what I remember it being called when it was new. The quality of the photos were also way better than google


I think bird's eye view was the angled view, which seems to have disappeared? I cannot find it.


But it is now available with Google Maps! View some location in Satellite mode, and then click the "3d" button on lower right. And then you can view any place from various angles


It's a nice trick sure, using machine learning (I assume) to build 3d geometry from 2d satellite images, but it's nothing compared to the quality and fidelity of the images taken by low flying airplanes that Birds Eye in Bing actually used. Made house/apartment hunting a dream!

Looking at 3d google maps a bit more closely, it does seem they are capturing the sides of buildings that are not visible on the top down image. Still nowhere near the quality of Birds Eye, but I'd be interested in what other image sources they are using besides top down, and how they are captured.


It isn't machine learning, it's aerial photography shot at an angle with depth sensing.

For example, take an airplane and mount two cameras on it, one on each side, angled down at perhaps 45 degrees to capture ground imagery in each direction.

Add a LIDAR device next to each camera to capture a "point cloud" of the same area the camera is imaging.

Now you have photographic images with distance data for each pixel. You can use that to construct a 3D image that can be viewed from various angles.

(Disclosure: I work at an unrelated Alphabet company but have no personal knowledge of any of this, it's just my semi-educated guess.)


You probably don't even need the LIDAR. Since the airplane is moving, you can use the parallax between successive images to determine depth information. The technique is called "structure from motion"


Or include the position and orientation of the images' cameras and do a traditional photogrammetric bundle adjustment.


I don't think they're using lidar, but I don't know much about it.

However your comment made me think of this awesome article about Google maps and 3d buildings https://www.justinobeirne.com/google-maps-moat


I thought it had to be accomplished by satellite somehow. I looked at a very remote island in the southern Indian Ocean where I was stationed and the amount of detail in Bing Bird's eye view of the geography was astonishing. This was circa 2013. I would be very surprised if they flew a plane out there just for those islands, there are no flights or shipping routes passing by there.


I think your reply had the clue. "Where I was stationed". Seems like it was valuable and valuable places get attention.


Answering my own question: it still exists, it's on the right-click menu.


But only at a super-zoomed in level, not the "sim-city" level that made scrolling around whole cities a dream.

I think the product has never recovered since they migrated off Silverlight :(


Bing also uses the term "Bird's Eye" in the right-click options menu. Maybe Sergey wasn't so crazy?


Bird's eye is different.


How is that the Google team couldn't come up with this? The main argument for "satellite" was "it fits on a button". I actually think this was more about egos despite what the twitter story says.


Orthophoto is the common term in GIS circles.


Now, these exec reviews were Larry and Sergey’s favorite place to experiment with crazy meeting ideas (kind of fun, actually). I had attended one review where one founder spent the entire meeting on an elliptical machine. Their new experiment was a huge countdown clock.

If your manager brings fun gadgets into your meetings to keep him/herself entertained, your work might not be important to the company.


Or it could be that you work at a startup where the founders are playful, willing to experiment and don't take themselves too seriously. Google did a lot of things differently than other companies.

Larry and Sergey were extremely invested in Google. I don't think that at this point there was a single employee at Google whose work was not important for them. Larry personally signed off on every single hire. And as you can see in this story they got involved in details like what the text on a button is.


Yep. Meetings are hard to get right. Experimentation with meeting formats can be very valuable.

We tend to try a new meeting format for retrospectives every few times, because different formats raise different sorts of issues, some go deep, some go wide, variety ensures that the meetings don’t get boring over time and that we cover as much as possible.

We do similar with brainstorming for new projects too. Some brainstorming methods are very design focused or tech focused or user focused, etc. Different types have different results.


Or your manager trusts you to do what is right, and knows that the meeting is pointless and their input is superfluous.


In which case the manager is not sufficiently empowered to not have the meeting and not waste your time and theirs.


Sounds like the meeting was actually quite effective in rallying the maps team behind a single solution ;)


I think I saw it in an Dilbert or something, but that reminds me of the Dinosaur Strategy. It involves just ignoring any stupid directives that management puts out, hoping that by the time anybody notices that you haven't actually done it, they will have forgotten about it or left.


That seems to go well with the general Dilbert philosophy of „everyone but me is stupid“.


Or claim it as their own idea, like most of the time.


The title reminds me of an arguably-even-closer-to-bird mode I rigged up for a fun conference exhibit at UCL years ago, using the Google Earth browser plug-in and a Kinect (linked via Processing and Websockets). We called it Pigeon Sim.

Video: https://vimeo.com/41552761

Code: https://github.com/jawj/pigeonsim


Ahh those were the days, gmac. We rolled that thing out for years afterwards, this was truly "Bird Mode" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w5ye9dfeu7c


As a hardcore GIS person it drives me a little wild watching people of other domains misname things like aerial vs. satellite, photography vs. imagery, etc. Even moreso is when people of other domains re-write the wheel rather than learn some GIS (like stuff I see often in Mobile robot perception/mapping).

The best way I can describe it is that feeling when kids on the playground are speaking like experts about a videogame you knew about years before anyone. You should be excited they're into stuff you're into, but you just wished they'd give a little credit. :)


I also work with GIS data. Robot perception/mapping is still useful because it accounts for changes in the environment, like a moved furniture piece. Even for GIS, you need fresh aerial photos to do feature detection, don't you? The UN has GIS analysts working around the clck to supply fresh mapping data for military missions.


Those are pretty unrelated.

I'm talking about things like not properly maintaining a singular Cartesian projection across a mapped space, so it becomes impossible to reproject related data. So people end up having to manually adjust all the related data after a remapping session.


For more stories like this, I highly recommend "Never Lost Again" by Bill Kilday: https://www.powells.com/book/never-lost-again-the-google-map...

Kilday was a PM and marketing manager at Keyhole, the startup whose product was renamed Google Earth after being acquired.

His book includes stories and details on Google Earth, Google Maps, the huge amounts of $$$$$, and some of the personalities and politics involved (including Bret Taylor, author of the OP tweet thread).


I feel like they were taking themselves too seriously. The company is named after a spelling mistake. I don't think "Bird Mode" would have been too silly.


>> It turns out, when you write the code, you have a fair amount of power.

Best quote, and the same thing what I think all day long.


I had to laugh. All these execs taking the name so serious during the meeting, yet afterwards none raised a fuss because you used a different name.

What that tells me, the name was never that important to them, it was just an meeting to show how important they were to each other - yet in real life their poses meant NOTHING.


It could also mean exactly the opposite of that: that they didn't take it seriously and just had fun naming it, but didn't really care.


Exactly what Stallman has been saying for decades. Exactly from what he is trying to protect users.


And if the exec did remember, he may well fire you on the spot for your insolence.


Yes, we must remember our place: kneeling, head bowed


I would've just gone with "Photograph", given that the other two types shown are "Default" and "Terrain".

(As the old saying goes, naming things is hard, and I've personally experienced a lot of bikeshed over it...)


Kinda wish they'd gone with "bird mode". In addition to being cool, it looks like it would have been more accurate as well :)


Well, now they can use bird's mode as yet another option for directions. I often wish it was easier to get geodesic distance. It is certainly more useful than that uber and lyft ad.


true, because the photos were taken by birds


ever heard of the phrase bird's-eye view?


Yea but if you can make a bird analogy why not a satellite analogy?


Bird is a slangy term for satellite, so it actually fits pretty well with the Keyhole acquisition


Oh I've never heard of that!


More accurate, less precise


Was the photo taken from a birds eye?


In a metaphorical sense, yes.


So.. like Satellite view then?


As always, here's the thread for people that dislike the twitter format: https://threader.app/thread/1099370126678253569


It should have been called Bird Mode, because all the images are obviously taken with birds: https://birdsarentreal.com/pages/the-history


The internet is truly an amazing place.


Perfect example of "its easier to ask for forgiveness than permission" if the execs remembered the meeting and did't like the naming, and also meshes extremely well with "It turns out, when you write the code, you have a fair amount of power"


Why not "Aerial" mode?

Edit: Looks like another reply correctly pointed that Bing uses this.


Apple Maps, OpenMapTiles, and Mapbox calls it Satellite. Bing Maps calls it Aerial.

Maybe heavily influenced by Google Maps.


> [Larry and Sergey's] new experiment was a huge countdown clock. The rule was: the review had to end on time. ... And literally no exec noticed or remembered our review.

I suppose when you're Larry and Sergey, toying with bikeshed product managers can be fun and not actually waste a crap ton of time.


Side note: on Twitter, you need to place each paragraph of your essay in a separate post, paying attention to the number of signs.

And people are complaining that the new editor in WordPress (Gutenberg) is bad :)


Or the other paranoid conspiracy theory interpretation is that the CIA wanted to call it Bird mode to avoid freaking out people. See https://pando.com/2015/07/01/cia-foia-google-keyhole/


Your comment makes little sense.

The article you linked is from a FOIA request. CIA's In-Q-Tel was an investor in the Keyhole product, and that Google has continued to receive excluive contracts for Google Maps.

The tweets note that Sergy proposed the name Bird mode, not the CIA, although the article suggests he (and Google) was closely working with CIA and US intelligence agencies. CIA also denied providing details on why/how they solid the In-Q-Tel funded product to Google.

Which is all to say, you should question what Google's doing with Maps and the massive amount of data its mining every moment its on, rather than passing off baseless statements as conspiracy theories.


What does `We pocket vetoed the decision ` mean ?


A pocket veto is when the President vetos a bill by not signing it and letting it expire.


A few years later, perhaps it would have been Drone mode?

When I saw the title, I thought a flying UI, like Google Earth VR has[1], had come to Google Maps.

[1] A random flight to street view transition: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4nulHk7Z3mI&t=96


Speaking of the founders' involvement, I seem to remember that, almost ten years ago, picking up to ten "best ever" places among your Google Hotpot ratings was Sergey's idea. I don't think that lasted more than a year. Hotpot itself was folded back into Maps reviews.


Funny enough, Bird Mode would probably be the most accurate name for the service as both satellites and planes are referred to as "birds"


It would have been more fun to name it after a three letter agency, the ones with Hubble Space Telescopes that point down instead of up.


In fact, the Keyhole satellites those agencies used were state-of-the-art at one time. And "Google" is a much less scary name than "NSA Surveillance Tool," though there's little practical difference between the two in terms of the amount of data they scoop up on each of us. Of course, only one requires a court order (at least theoretically) to use it against you.


Says a lot I had to wonder which required the court order and then remembered since I’m not a US citizen it’s a moot point.


Dont bite the hand that feeds you, aka lets not forget who funded Google in the first place.



L&S come off as the biggest jokers ever who lucked into a multi-billion dollar empire. Sigh.


This would have opened them up to all sorts of litigation nightmares generally classified under Bird Law, a sector in which Google is notoriously weak.

Why didn't they just call it Photo, or Image, or Detail?


Those are horrible options, worse than all three alternatives discussed (bird, aerial, satellite).

Detail: That’s not specific enough. It could refer to everything and anything.

Image and Photo: People do not really use these words to refer to aerial and satellite photography. People might think it’s some kind of photo-mode (referring to actual photos that are somehow placed on the map).

Obviously you would have to test this to be really sure that someone has a problem with these – but to me their problematic nature seems quite obvious.

Realistically it would, however, not really be realistic to test (all) changes like these … so you have to trust me that your intuition in this case is horrible.

I mean, even if you test it the effect of anything you suggested would probably be small – but to me choices like those are what make software really and truly awful.



Cool, call out someone’s ideas as horrible without anything to back it up other than “trust me”. What do you think that contributed?





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