Google Maps Introduces AR Navigation in Airports, But Is It Helpful?

Using your phone's camera to get around is...interesting, to say the least

woman in airport on phone

Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

It's hard to remember when our phones weren't the most useful navigation tool in our arsenal (Mapquest printouts, who?). While the map apps are already impressive, Google Maps is always looking to improve its navigation game. Last week, the tech giant announced upcoming features to the software, including augmented reality (AR) indoor navigation, helping users find their way through public spaces like airports and shopping malls.

Dubbed "Indoor Live View," the software will use your phone’s camera to provide walking directions overlaid onto the image of your surroundings in real-time, kind of like sunglasses out of a spy movie. It’s not new tech—Google has actually had this feature available for outdoor navigation in cities since 2019. (Open up Google Maps, set your destination, pick the walking route, and click on “Live View.)” But this does mark the first time Google has brought AR navigation indoors.

While I haven’t been to an airport that currently supports Indoor Live View yet—Google is slowly rolling out the updates throughout the year—I’ve tested out the standard Live View function in New York City to see how helpful the software really is. To be honest, I’m not completely sold.

After you enter your destination into Google Maps and select Live View, your camera opens up, and the app asks you to point your camera at signs or buildings across the street so it can orient itself. Once it knows where you are, big arrows pop up within the camera’s image and show you exactly where you need to go. Admittedly it looks pretty cool.

That said, I find navigating with your phone in front of your face to be an incredibly clunky experience. If you’re staring at your screen, you’re not likely going to be aware of everything going on around you; you could easily bump into a traffic cone, step in dog poop, fall into a sidewalk cellar door, or worse, step off the curb and get hit by a bike or a car. (There’s a reason experts say texting while walking is dangerous.) In the case of an airport, I imagine you might accidentally bump into someone’s suitcase if they cut you off—not really that dangerous, but certainly not ideal.

I do, however, think that Live View, both indoors and out, is ideal for orienting yourself in a new place. A native New Yorker might be able to pop out of the subway and immediately discern which way is north, but a visitor might need an extra cue. In that case, Live View can push you in the right direction, and then you can switch back to the standard map-based navigation to continue your journey.

But will travelers find AR navigation to be as helpful when orienting themselves at an airport? I’m not so convinced. Airports—and their signage—are meticulously designed to make navigation between gates and key destinations like the baggage claim a breeze, so Live View might be somewhat redundant. It’ll likely be faster to walk towards a sign to figure out where you need to go than to get your AR navigation set up. The one exception: if you’re trying to find specific stores, restaurants, or lounges, which aren’t necessarily noted on main airport signage, Live View might work wonders. (Keep in mind that some airlines, including Delta, have incredibly detailed navigation systems embedded into their apps, so if you’re not into the AR thing, you can keep navigation two-dimensional!)

While I think there are some positives to Google’s Indoor Live View feature, I don’t think I’ll be using it at the airport any time soon. For me, personally, wandering airports is half of the fun! But you might want to ask me again when I’m making a tight connection in an airport I’ve never been to before…