A Look At The History Of Online Mapping

I keep a whole folder bookmarking interactive maps and virtual tours that I really like. Besides being a great inspiration for future features to develop it is just fun to compare how our product stacks up with the competition. Needless to say most don’t make the cut to be added to my folder.

The other day I was going through the folder to see what I have added over the years, and I noticed how designs and features have changed over the 3-4 years since I began building this collection. This got me thinking about the history of tours and maps online.

The History of Web Mapping By Steven Feldman

According to the notes from Steven Feldman on this slideshare presentation these slides were from a lecture he gave on March 17th, 2010. Wow, I really wish I was in attendance because this would have been a fascinating talk to me. As you go through the slides a couple of points really stand out to me that are worth sharing.

Mapping didn’t change for hundreds of years. If you want to talk about an industry that stayed pretty stagnant while technology progressed then look no further than mapping. From the 1500’s until modern time (the 1980’s to be more exact) mapping was essentially the same. I’m sure printing, folding and design changed, but it was never really disrupted with any technological innovations. Then a few technology companies, GPS and the internet flipped everything on its head.

“Why would anyone want a map on the internet?”  It’s so hard to wrap our mind around that today, but in the beginning people just couldn’t understand why you would want a map online. What a difference online maps and smart phones make today. Just look at the big uproar recently about Apple Maps if you want a reminder of how much people care about online mapping!

February 8th 2005 – G Day. The day Google Maps launched changed everything. Sure, others like MapQuest, Yahoo Maps and others were already around, but Google revolutionized the way EVERYONE used online maps. This soon led to mashups and Google releasing a maps API.

Other Historical Resources

As I kept digging there were a couple of additional resources that I found fascinating.

The first of these was Wikipedia’s History of Web Mapping timeline. There aren’t a lot of differences between this information and Steven Feldman’s slides, but it does go into more detail listing some of the major services and atlases that existed online over time.

In looking for information on the history of virtual tours I was able to learn that the first use of a virtual tour and the name was coined in 1994 as a museum visitor interpretation of Dudley Castle in England. Specifically related to the use of campus virtual tours the grandfather of virtual tours for higher education, CampusTours, has a historical timeline on their website. This timeline does weave in and out of their specific service offerings, but it also lets you read about the progression from photos to panoramas to videos into and out of Flash and much more. As you look at just those innovations you have to wonder what’s next.

Future Innovations

As you can see there has been major innovation in mapping in the last decade or two. With all of the support and excitement around mobile technology leveraging GPS you also have to feel like the innovation will continue to evolve rapidly. Mobile applications like Yelp and Foursquare continue to push mapping boundaries with lots of related content.

Mapping is going through a renaissance, and it will be interesting to watch and see where things take us. Next week I hope to post a follow-up article talking about some of those places that we see mapping going.

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