Tokyo Olympics Apple Maps: Death by Point of Interest

Apple tells Engadget Japan reporter Masaichi Honda that Apple Maps Japan will be ready for the Tokyo Olympics in the summer of 2020. Apple Maps will have robust indoor maps for tall buildings and underground station malls in Tokyo, and Real-time transit for better transit route searching and transit updates. That is exactly one year from now, far into the iOS 13 life cycle. Honda san also reports that Apple is not ready to show Japanese reporters a demo yet, not an encouraging sign.

In addition to the Apple Maps image collection vans combing Japan right now, WWDC19 unveiled the Indoor Maps Program for registered developers and building owners to map indoor areas and encode the data using (Apple’s ?) Indoor Mapping Data Format (IMDF). Once the data is encoded in IMDF, surveyed and validated, developers and building owners can use the data in their apps and designate indoor areas to share on Apple Maps.

That’s great for building owners to indoor map their own building. What about shared public places like Shinjuku Station which is spread out and shared by 8 different owners? There is also the localization problem. It’s one thing to indoor map for Japanese users, but who’s going to localize all those Point of Interest (POI) icons and information sheets in English, Chinese, Spanish, etc. That costs serious time and money.

Let’s take a comparison look at indoor maps of the primary entrance gate for inbound visitors coming to the Tokyo Olympics next year: Tokyo Station, and compare Yahoo Japan Maps, Apple Maps and Google Maps.

Yahoo Japan Maps
Yahoo Japan Maps only offers Japanese language but it has best cartography and attention to small details that matter, like yellow station exit signage colors that exactly match what you find on the ground. Apple and Google don’t.

Yahoo Japan Maps Tokyo Station Indoor mapping

Apple Maps Japan
Apple Maps does not offer indoor station mapping in Japan. It does offer multilingual support but judging from the English Point of Interest information, it’s not robust. As usual Apple Maps Japan overwhelms users with Point of Interest icons. It’s map death by Point of Interest. There’s a lot of fixing Apple needs to do if they want to present a good map product in time for the Olympics.

Apple Maps Japan Tokyo Station (as yet no indoor station mapping)

Google Maps Japan
Google Maps offers indoor mapping for Tokyo Station in multiple languages. For all the detail Google offers here, it’s much less helpful than Yahoo Japan Maps. For high density areas like Tokyo, good cartography and smart editing makes all the difference between a good map and lousy one.

Google Maps Japan Tokyo Station
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WWDC19 iOS 13 Apple Maps Wish List

There were very few Apple Maps rumors for WWDC this year, only one little paragraph from Mark Gurman <with comments>:

An updated Maps app will make it easier to set frequent locations, like home or work addresses, and then navigate there. Users will also be able to create groups of frequent places and add a photo to them. The current interface for navigating to suggested or past destinations can sometimes be confusing. <duh> This will increase competition with Google Maps and Waze apps <really? are you serious?>

Apple Maps didn’t get much love at WWDC18. It was only after WWDC was over that Eddy Cue offered a sneak peak to Matthew Panzarino to let everybody know Apple Maps 2.0 was in the works and well on its way. Panzarino’s fantastic piece is the logical starting point for any WWDC19 Apple Maps 2.0 discussion. The best approach is to discuss things using the 3 groups outlined in my previous post: Collection, Processing, Presentation. As usual I’ll discuss things from the Japanese perspective.

Collection
Eddy Cue outlined Apple Maps 2.0 as a dual approach of using anonymous iOS device data and Apple Maps vans to collect high quality map data while getting faster updates from devices vs. the next scheduled drive:

“The truth is that Maps needs to be [updated more], and even are today,” says Cue. “We’ll be doing this even more with our new maps, [with] the ability to change the map in real time and often… In the new map infrastructure, we can change that relatively quickly. If a new road opens up, immediately we can see that and make that change very, very quickly around it…”

In short: Traffic, real-time road conditions, road systems, new construction and changes in pedestrian walkways are about to get a lot better in Apple Maps.

TechCrunch Apple is rebuilding Maps from the ground up June 29, 2018

High quality in-house map data collection is a vital step, but there are limitations. The Google Maps Japan meltdown proved that even Google can’t do it all. When Google dropped premier Japanese map data supplier Zenrin, Google Maps Japan quality instantly crashed. Japan has very high density urban areas and very remote rural areas that cannot be effectively mapped from a van no matter how much fancy recording equipment it has. Zenrin has a 1,000 person ‘ground truth’ team just for mapping and updating those kind of places, inside and out, on site and on foot.

Apple Maps Japan data collection has kicked into high gear, but Apple Maps quality in Japan has suffered from poor locally supplied map data all along. Apple’s Japanese map supplier Increment P (IPC) bundles sub-supplier map data but doesn’t have a ground team to match Zenrin quality for hard to map areas.

Processing
Panzarino explained at length how the high-resolution image data collection effort fits with Apple’s in-house data qualification toolkit to identify problem areas with machine learning, so that the human team can quickly vet problems and update corrected map data for the trouble area:

The coupling of high-resolution image data from car and satellite, plus a 3D point cloud, results in Apple now being able to produce full orthogonal reconstructions of city streets with textures in place. This is massively higher-resolution and easier to see, visually…This is hugely important when it comes to the next step in Apple’s battle for supremely accurate and useful Maps: human editors.

Apple has had a team of tool builders working specifically on a toolkit that can be used by human editors to vet and parse data, street by street.

Many hundreds of editors will be using these tools, in addition to the thousands of employees Apple already has working on maps, but the tools had to be built first, now that Apple is no longer relying on third parties to vet and correct issues.

And the team also had to build computer vision and machine learning tools that allow it (Apple) to determine whether there are issues to be found at all.

There we have it: Apple is using in-house machine learning and no longer relies on 3rd party vetting or correction. How is this working out? Answer: not so great. At least in Japan. Let’s take a quick look around the Ikegami Honmonji Temple area.

Example #1: Ikegami Hall is completely missing in the map view even though it is in the satellite view.

Example #2: Duplicate Five-story Pagoda pin locations. The Manji character marked pagoda is correct while the grey one from Foursquare is the wrong location and duplicate information that needs to be removed or merged. <Kudos to Apple here for respecting local culture and using the traditional Buddhist temple Manji character, while Google Maps does not>

The conclusion here is that Apple Maps 2.0 isn’t living up to Eddy Cue’s stated goals, at least in Japan:

  • In example #1 machine learning is supposed to identify problem areas when the satellite and map views don’t match up, but fails. The human team is not alerted to the problem and cannot fix it.
  • In example #2 the system cannot distinguish between incorrect 3rd party supplied duplicate data and the real thing. In my experience Foursquare Japan and Yelp Japan have no human location vetting, most of their product is worthless. Apple faces a choice: is it better to show nothing, or is it better to show unvetted 3rd party data that has a high risk of being incorrect leading users to the wrong place? My suggestion: don’t use any 3rd party data that has not been vetted by Apple Maps van collected in-house map data.

Presentation
Cartography and the Maps UI is where it all comes together.

Apple has a team of cartographers on staff that work on more cultural, regional and artistic levels to ensure that its Maps are readable, recognizable and useful.

For instance, in the U.S., it is very common to have maps that have a relatively low level of detail even at a medium zoom. In Japan, however, the maps are absolutely packed with details at the same zoom, because that increased information density is what is expected by users.

Panzarino got it wrong here. Users in Japan don’t want a map view packed with details. The difference is not cultural, it’s simply that high density metropolitan areas like Tokyo have much more information packed into a given area than American cities. Presenting high density information in clean easy to read cartography is challenging.

Yahoo Japan Maps and Google Maps have both evolved their cartography away from detail packed, point of interest cluttered views to cleaner cartography. Yahoo Japan Maps cartography is the best because they deploy good design with smartly edited zoom level assignment: this information is important at default zoom level, this other information belongs at zoom-in level 2, etc. This clean approach shows only the important details for the given zoom level for quick navigation. The differences in readability comparing Tokyo area views of Yahoo Japan Maps, Apple Maps and Google Maps are immediately noticeable. Here is Gotanda Station:

Apple Maps 2.0 fails here too. The cartography is less readable, recognizable and useful than the competition. The easiest fix would be for the Apple Maps cartography team to stop stuffing so many Point of Interest (POI) icons at the same zoom level and intelligently rank information to display at different zoom levels.

Unfortunately, that effort requires a group of humans with expert local area knowledge. An Apple Maps engineer explained the dilemma to me once, “Yahoo Japan Maps has the luxury of focusing all of their product development on just the Japan market.” It’s a luxury that neither Apple nor Google have.


WWDC19 Wish List

Here is my wish list for Apple Maps Japan 2.0 using the same categories, including transit which is a separate app and service layer within Maps.

Collection

  • Traffic and Real Time Road Conditions: these important features are missing in Japan and absolutely must be added. Car navigation with Apple Maps in Japan is worthless without them.
  • Sign a deal with Zenrin: because Apple Maps can never re-invent the digital map wheel for their Japanese product. Don’t make the same mistake Google Maps did.
  • Offline turn by turn navigation: Apple Maps turn by turn navigation completely dies in underground roads or in rural areas without a network connection. It’s like flying blind. Dedicated Japanese turn by turn navigation systems handle this without a problem. Apple Maps 2.0 needs to match the same level of performance to be a reliable car navigation service.

Processing

  • Fix stuff: Improve machine learning to identify problem areas for humans to fix, or hire humans who can identify and fix problems in Japan maps.
  • Vet Stuff or Don’t Use It: If Apple Maps cannot internally vet 3rd party social networked geo trash from notoriously unreliable Yelp, Foursquare and TripAdvisor, don’t use it.

Presentation (Cartography and Maps UI)
This is where most of the action is covering how the map looks and how users interact with it.

Cartography

  • Apple Maps Cartography 2.0
    Google Maps and Yahoo Japan Maps constantly tweak and evolve their map design, changing contrast, colors, text sizes, and more while pushing map information updates. Meanwhile Apple Maps cartography is fossilized in 2012 debut era design garb. I can only assume 2 things. Either Apple thinks so highly of the current Apple Maps cartography design language that it will never change it. Or Apple is creating a whole new cartography design. Let’s hope for the latter.
  • Fix the Point of Interest overload: with smarter zoom level editing
  • Eliminate Separate Map View/Transit View Modes
    Toggling back and forth between 2 basic view modes in Apple Maps is passé. It desperately needs a revamp. Yahoo Japan Maps leads the way here by collapsing separate road map and transit maps into a single comprehensive map view that covers 99% of what users need, while offering a real rail map for the 1% who need a real rail map. It’s a time saver and smart way to eliminate toggling map views. More on this in the transit section.

Maps UI

  • Recents 2.0
    The current version of Recents is an old shoebox filled with crap: tapped places, liked places, Siri searches, suggestions, liked train stations to receive train delay notices, home, work, and stuff I have no idea why it’s even there. There are so many improvement suggestions I don’t know where to start. I’ll keep it simple and say, Apple please figure out what Recents is supposed to do, so that we don’t have to.
  • Nearby 2.0:
    Nearby suffers the same problems as basic processing, Apple Maps 2.0 needs to do a better job of filtering out the junk. Anybody can list 10 nearby cafes, but only smart editors can give me 10 that are worth visiting. Also follow Yahoo Japan Maps nearby approach of keeping everything on one screen, with minimal pinch and zoom. Avoid Google Maps approach of turning Nearby into stealth advertising.
  • Live Weather Layer: this is Yahoo Japan Maps insanely great secret weapon. I always use it to find when its raining and where, with a time slider to predict if I need an umbrella at my destination. It’s a life saver and must have Apple Maps 2.0 feature. Once you use it, you can never use another map that doesn’t have it.
Yahoo Japan Maps: once you use a map service with live weather layer, you can’t use anything else

Transit

  • Nearby Transit Time Widget
    Google and Apple both use the same transit data supplier, but Google Maps uses it much better than Apple Maps. Most people already know where they are going and how to get there. What they really want to know is: when is the next train? Google Maps does this via a handy widget that offers location based nearby station train times and bus times without having to open the map or tap on a station. This is incredibly simple and convenient. Apple Maps 2.0 needs to offer it.
Google Maps Nearby Transit Time widget is extremely convenient
  • Siri Transit Support
    Siri does not support transit requests. Siri can navigate you to the nearest station but after that you are on your own. The ability to ask Siri for transit times is an important Apple Maps 2.0 feature.
Siri does not support transit times
  • Transit Route Search 2.0
    This is another area where Apple Maps has stood still while Yahoo Japan Maps and Google Maps continually push out improvements: route suggestion sorting by fare, transit time and number of transfers, train car position information for faster transfers and exits. Apple Maps 2.0 Transit needs to catch up with the competition.
  • Location Based Transit Alarms on iPhone
    Apple Maps transit has wonderful integration with Apple Watch but it could be improved with destination and transfer point alarms/alerts that also work on iPhone.
  • Improved Apple Pay Transit Card Integration
    Apple Maps has some basic integration with Apple Pay Suica but it could be improved by incorporating user Suica Commute Plan information for better route searches with more accurate fare information. Apple Maps integration with HOP and Ventra cards in Apple Pay Wallet would be a great feature for those transit regions.
  • Adaptive Transit Times
    The problem with transit route suggestions on Apple Maps, Google Maps and Yahoo Japan Maps is that once the user selects a route suggestion, transit times are locked in and cannot change on the fly. All too often a users selects a route and time but catches an early or later train, and has to input a new search to reset the transit time. But this is often impossible to do on the fly as transit route searches add a ‘time to station’ buffer. Transit times that adapt and automatically update to transit conditions would be a great feature to have in Apple Maps 2.0 transit.

We’ll find out at the WWDC19 keynote on June 3 at 10:00 a.m. PDT.

UPDATE
WWDC19 Apple Maps scorecard and Tokyo Olympics Apple Maps

Why does Google Maps discriminate against Buddhist Temples?

Dear Google Maps Team,

I have noticed recently that Google Maps in Japan has stopped using the traditional Manji 卍 character for marking Buddhist temples and has substituted a plain gray drop pin. All the other religious organizations still get special icons to denote the religious group: Shinto, Christian, Islam and Judaism. Why do Buddhism get the short stick?

Apple Maps and Yahoo Japan Maps both respect local culture and display Buddhist temples the traditional way. Why can’t you? If you study history and culture you will understand that the Manji character has been used in connection with Buddhism throughout Asia for hundreds of years. It has nothing to do with European history or the tragic events of WW II.

As a Buddhist I hope that non-Buddhists strive to respect Buddhist culture as Buddhists strive to respect other cultures and religions. It’s easy to understand why some Westerners might misunderstand this aspect of Japanese culture, but misunderstanding is always an opportunity to learn new things and grow. When you whitewash one religious symbol because somebody who doesn’t come from that culture doesn’t like it or doesn’t understand it, you are promoting cultural discrimination.

I’m sure Google Maps does not want to promote cultural discrimination. Please do the right thing and respect all religions equally.

Love and Kisses,
Ata Distance

UPDATE
Some readers have suggested this a result of the some preliminary map symbol proposals from the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan, however the Manji symbol was retained in a later proposal with the word ‘temple’ included. What’s important to remember is that the map symbol suggestions were merely suggestions intended for non-Japanese language maps at tourist areas and such. It’s also important to note that the Japanese government did not consult with Buddhist organizations. In short what Google has done does not follow Japanese government guideline suggestions or respect local culture. It is censorship.

UPDATE 2
Related coverage on the WWDC19 Apple Maps Wish List

UPDATE 3
Manji temple place of interest icons have returned to Google Maps after a long and curious absence:

Fix the rice emoji Apple, it’s gross

Many Japanese have pointed out this already, but the Apple rice emoji is just gross. The rice doesn’t look like cooked rice, it’s grey and unfit for human consumption, like it was left outside for a few days and is about to mold. The bowl design is weird too. It is a tea cup pressed into service? Is it an offering bowl? Whatever it is, it doesn’t look like it’s for human use either.

The State of CSS, Japanese Layout, Open Type Variable Fonts and why Apple News+ won’t happen in Japan

It’s an open secret that Apple doesn’t really care about advanced typography, they just say that they do. The laughably amateur vertical text support feature recently added to iWork Pages makes that clear. If you have any interest in what professional Japanese typography really is, check out Nat McCully’s presentation on Japanese layout he gave at the Japanese Electronic Publishers Association meeting (JEPA). Both his Japanese video presentation and materials are online and well worth your time.

I knew Nat back in the 1990’s when he was an engineer at Claris responsible for the development of the highly successful Japanese version of ClarisWorks. I think he also worked on a QuickDraw GX version of ClarisWorks until GX was killed in 1997.

Luckily for us, he moved from Apple to Adobe in 1998 and put his extensive knowledge of advanced Japanese typography and programming skills to help solve a big problem: the inability to reproduce beautiful Japanese layout (kumihan) on western created layout software and fonts of that time (Quark XPress, Illustrator, InDesign 1.0, etc.). McCully explains the background and 2 year development of InDesign J at the 10:25 mark in his presentation, and the challenges of working around the limitations of baseline font metrics while developing good line break algorithms for Japanese layout.

The result was InDesign 1.0 J which shipped in early 2001. InDesign J was the first, and only, major software application developed outside of Japan that followed the Japanese Industrial Standard (JIS) X4051 typesetting and composition specification (the kumihan “bible”) and traditional Japanese print production methods. I have covered some basics of Japanese layout before, but a review is helpful for first time readers. I’ll use a mix of my material and McCully’s presentation to explain.

Japanese Layout Basics: Space

Japanese culture is the only culture I know of where the central core cultural value is subtraction: how much can we take away to bring out the essential beauty of an object. This is embodied in ikebana, in Japanese gardens and in people: the Kanji shitsuke 躾, inadequately rendered in English as ‘discipline’, is a Kanji that originates from Japan, not China. Western culture and Chinese culture are similar in that the central cultural value is addition: how much can we add that’s not here to make an object more beautiful.

The central core value of traditional Japanese text composition and layout, called ‘kumihan’, is space. Kumihan is driven by what text will fit in a given space, how to balance and minutely control that space. Kanji characters are contained in little boxes of space, known as virtual bodies, also called the grid system because the middle of each box is one center point on a grid. Everything is calculated from the center and the space surrounding that center; there is no baseline.

top image@2x
The red line is the outline of the virtual body, the blue line is the type face boundary. The standard size virtual body comes from the era of moveable type.
A virtual body Kanji with approximate baseline overlay red line.

Western created DTP layout is graphics-driven and calculated by margins and font baselines. The western baseline typography model and font metrics is how PostScript and OpenType fonts, and all layout engines evolved. Adobe was well acquainted with the shortcomings of their own font technology and InDesign J got around the problems by adding proprietary Kanji virtual body font metrics and Japanese line break algorithms.

That is fine for InDesign and print production, but web layout and typography via CSS is an entirely different world. There are 3 huge obstacles for good vertical Japanese typography on the web:

  • No font metrics for virtual body/em-box glyph space placement: everything has to be accomplished with baseline metrics
  • No reliable space control
  • No reliable line breaks

In the presentation McCully highlights a web post from Vincent De Oliveria that neatly summarizes basic problems of working with CSS:

Line-height and vertical-align are simple CSS properties. So simple that most of us are convinced to fully understand how they work and how to use them. But it’s not. They really are complex, maybe the hardest ones, as they have a major role in the creation of one of the less-known feature of CSS: inline formatting context

(summary)

-inline formatting context is really hard to understand
– vertical-align is not very reliable
a line-box’s height is computed based on its children’s line-height and vertical-align properties
we cannot easily get/set font metrics with CSS

Deep dive CSS: font metrics, line-height and vertical-align

This is further complicated by all the devices out there. A Japanese web page that looks good on iOS looks terrible on Samsung Galaxy because Samsung has a different layout engine that has a different idea of how to use space.

The end result, as McCully concludes in his presentation, is that quality Japanese vertical layout on web pages is very difficult to achieve. It requires a massive amount of extra work dealing with CSS limitations and optimizing things deep in the OS layout engine level such as iOS/macOS Core Text.

Failure of Open Standards

It’s helpful at this point to remember the key goals of QuickDraw GX:

  • Treat all writing systems and layout models equally as one single layout package
  • Make advanced typography a comprehensive high level framework that is standard across the OS and applications, simple to use for developers, and easily available to all users

People only remember the failure of GX technology at a time when Apple was spinning out of control, but the goals were, and remain, visionary and timeless. GX was about breaking advanced typography out of a niche to make advanced typography of all writing systems a widely used standard feature for developers, and for users. Unfortunately those goals were forgotten in the rise of web technologies and open standards like CSS and EPUB which focused on improving web based text only from a western typography perspective. Vertical text layout almost didn’t make into the EPUB format until a small but vocal group of Japanese programmers argued for its inclusion. They encountered a lot of resistance along the way, which seems to be the case for any feature outside the immediate needs the western typography perspective.

What we have now are web technologies and OS text layout engines that offer advanced layout from a limited perspective for a limited set of web designer programmers. In other words, niche. We can see the same thing happening with OpenType Variable Fonts. They are mostly for the web. They will remain niche. They will remain western due to the high development costs of creating OpenType Variable fonts with huge glyph sets like Japanese.

It’s an unfortunate situation, but without a vision and strong leadership, the smart people in the room always run off in different directions creating an animal farm of different ideas and approaches pulling in different directions. That’s what open is. Very rarely does it coalesce into a tight integrated whole greater than the sum of the parts.

In the eternal words of venerable Japanese font engineer Tomihisa Uchida, “no matter what kind of fancy fonts you have, they look bad with poor typography”. Which brings us to Apple News+ and why it will never see the light of day in Japan: Japanese customers will never pay for a news subscription service that doesn’t deliver good looking vertical text content. The Apple News Format can’t pull that one off, and Apple is not going to spend the resources to do it right. The iWorks vertical text support feature is certainly proof of that.