Apple's iOS 6 3D Flyovers aim to be more helpful, less creepy than Google Street View

Posted:
in iPhone edited January 2014
Apple is incorporating advanced 3D imaging to bring a variety of new features to iOS users, from building outlines to topographical terrain to fully rendered 3D models that not only replace Google's StreetView, but offer to provide 360 degree views across neighborhoods, behind buildings and even off roads.

Apple's strategy of taking its Maps solo in iOS 6 was described in Apple wants to wipe Google off the map with iOS 6, while a second segment, How Apple's new vector-based Maps leave Google Maps looking jittery detailed how the company will be levering vector graphics to greatly improve the Maps experience in iOS.

However, there are a variety of attractive features Google has bundled into its web and app-based Google Maps portfolio, providing a tall order for anyone hoping to replicate all those features. Apple certainly has big shoes to fill in the maps department. Among these are:

Google's 3D models and StreetView maps

Google Earth began mapping the world with 3D building outlines, a feature Google later brought into the Android version of its mobile maps client. Apple never adopted these 3D models however, so all iOS users see in the current iOS 5 Maps client is a 2D depiction of the building outlines Google has added to the bit mapped tiles it serves Apple's Maps client, without any ability to freely rotate the map (below, in contrast with Google's 3D massing models visible in Google Maps for Android).



More recently, Google has introduced 3D features that essentially paint images from aerial photography onto building outlines, resulting in a nearly photorealistic 3D model that users can explore from different angles. These features require significant client-side processing power to render, and just as with Google's basic 3D outlines, Apple hasn't ever incorporated them into its iOS Maps client.

In order to provide an explorable map that is efficient in both processing and bandwidth requirements (compared to 3D model rendering), Google first began its StreetView project, which sends out vehicles to all major roads, taking panoramic images that users can then access in a "you are there" view of virtually any block face visible from virtually any significant road Google's camera-equipped cars have traveled.

Conceptually, StreetView can be dated back to an ARPA project developed at MIT, which in 1978 began mapping the town of Aspen, Colorado, using photographs stored on interactive Laserdisc, allowing users to virtually walk down streets, and even bring up seasonal views of the town from multiple perspectives.

The Aspen Movie Map was one of the first advanced examples of hypermedia, and was described by a young Steve Jobs in a 1983 speech describing the future potential of personal computing.



"It's really amazing," Jobs said, describing the project in contrast with conventional, static forms of old media. "It's not incredibly useful," he added as the audience laughed, "but it points to some of the interactive nature of this new medium which is just starting to break out from movies, and will take another five to ten years to evolve."

Ten years later in 1994, Apple would release QuickTime VR, which allowed photographers to stitch together photos taken from a single location into a node that viewers could later explore dynamically, creating a new type of movie where playback was no longer fixed along a linear progression. Users could also jump between nodes, effectively exploring a virtual model of a real or imagined universe one spot at a time (or, alternatively, view an object from multiple perspectives).

QuickTime VR finds a use, 13 years later, in StreetView

While a variety of companies copied or extended upon Apple's work on QuickTime VR, there was never a huge market for the technology. That is, until Google realized that panoramic photography would make an ideal way to efficiently allow Google Maps users to explore the world right from their web browser.

Thus, Google's StreetView exploited a useful application for the QuickTime VR technology Apple pioneered commercially in 1994, four years before Google was founded as a company and 13 years before Google debuted StreetView in 2007.

While not without controversy from privacy advocates (and with government stopping Google's work of StreetView mapping the world in countries like Australia, Germany and India), Google has effectively covered vast areas of Europe, Russia, North America, Brazil, Japan, Thailand, South Korea and South Africa with its camera cars.

Apple incorporated support for StreetView in iOS 2.2 Maps in 2008, but accessing the feature is not necessarily obvious; users must drop a location pin, bring up its information panel and then tap the StreetView icon to view a local panorama image of the spot (if its is available, and not obscured by passing vehicles or other obstructions).



Users can then step along the street in increments, turn down other mapped streets, and get close enough to houses to see right in homeowners' windows.






On the web, Google still relies upon the Adobe Flash plugin to view StreetView panoramas, making them inaccessible to iOS users outside of Apple's specially designed Maps client. In iOS 6, Apple has removed the ability to access Google's StreetView images.

Duplicating Google's four years' worth of efforts in mapping streets from the ground level would be an enormous task (although other mapping companies have started doing this). But instead of skating to where the puck was in 2007, Apple has started promoting a new, overlapping feature for Maps in iOS 6: Flyover.

On page 2 of 3: Flyover's virtual StreetView

Flyover's virtual StreetView

In August 2011, Apple bought C3 Technologies, known for its work in developing 3D images based on aerial or satellite images. By melding building model outlines with photos taken from satellites or low flying aircraft, C3 figured out how to create virtual models without necessarily sending cameras down the street.

While StreetView is tailored to discovering what an exact address looks like from the perspective of a passing car, Apple's Flyover technology can provide both a bird's eye view of building faces and an interactive, 360 view of panoramas from rooftops or hilltops or virtually any arbitrary, midair vantage point.

Another distinct advantage of Flyover over StreetView is that in StreetView, the user must proceed through panoramic nodes one step at a time. With Flyover, users can hover above a location, viewing the entire street and surrounding streets all at the same time, seeing a continuous representation of an entire path through a given neighborhood.



This continuous pan and zoom navigation is more akin to the approach of Google Earth rather than the "one step at a time" StreetView, but Flyover (below top) is distinctly sharper than Google Earth (below bottom) without going so far as offering a view into people's windows.




One downside to the Flyover/Google Earth approach is that it is far more computationally intensive; rather than looking at a relatively simple, distorted and stitched photograph of a fixed panorama, the system must model thousands of 3D objects (buildings, tree and other structures) within a given scene, then wrap them with photographic skins.

Every 3D scene is dynamically active, meaning it can be rotated around 360 degrees, up and down, and at a wide range of viewing angles relative to the horizon in a vast 3D space. This provides a modeled city view reminiscent of video games such as "InFamous" (or "SimCity," if you were born before 1985), except with far more detailed complexity and a viewing area a big as the world itself.

So far, there are a limited number of cities that have fully modeled support, but the infrastructure is in place to deliver a Flyover experience anywhere. Apple is also reportedly adding support for new cities (like Portland, Oregon, below) at a regular clip. There's also a technology curve that taxes the resources of even the newest iOS hardware, but things can only improve as mobile devices get faster.

Portland


Google (among others) is also deploying its own 3D mobile maps, and would realistically be expected to be far ahead of Apple given its distant head start in mapping and 3D modeling with Google Earth. However, developers report that Google's 3D maps are in many cases inferior to the developer builds visible in Apple's iOS 6 Maps app.

Moscone Center
View of Moscone Center in Google Earth (left) and Apple Maps (right)


Additionally, Apple is already providing models for areas Google hasn't yet, such as this view of San Francisco's Treasure Island, where Google Earth simply presents the map rendered as a flat surface (which Apple also does in areas where there are not yet models).




3D model view

If Flyover's full 3D modeling seems too graphically intensive for today's hardware, consider instead the highly efficient 3D model mode in iOS 6 Maps' standard street view.

When viewing a location top down, you get a view similar to that provided by the current Google Maps server, except that building masses are rendered as 2D outlines rather than as flat 3D with a slight perspective effect. Below, San Francisco's downtown Union Square area in standard 2D.



You can touch the 3D button to get a perspective view, where buildings and other structures pop up from the surface of the map. Drag two fingers up or down and the perspective changes from straight down to about 45 degrees downward. Below, the same view as above, but in standard 3D.



Spin the map with two fingers and you can look down actual street corridors, very similar to the views in Google Earth. Of course, building models only exist for a limited number of major cities. Even in areas where there are not yet models, 3D views of Map's 2D vector outlines provide an additional level of perspective from an airplane-like view. Below, the same map, rotated to look up Market Street.



Where building models do exist, 3D "standard view" provides a useful overview of what a neighborhood's structures look like. It isn't really comparable to StreetView, but it is a very fast and responsive way to explore around neighborhoods. Below, Apple's Cupertino campus in standard 3D mode.



On page 3 of 3: 3D Flyover with satellite images, and which is creepier?

3D Flyover with satellite images

Add in photo surface textures and of course rendering slows down, but things also get very interesting. While Google's StreetView can be used to zoom into a particular block face, looking into a house's windows, Apple's Flyover approach provides a more "estimated" view, essentially a distorted depiction of an aerial photograph. Below, the same map view above, but with satellite images turned on, and below that, zoomed in to the Apple campus.




Flyover certainly isn't the same as StreetView; the detail is rougher and often morphed or distorted. Apple doesn't have to blur faces or license places in Flyover because you can't make out details at that level anyway. However, Flyover provides a more continuous view of an area, and lets you observe it from an omniscient vantage point, floating upward or spinning the earth below you.

As you zoom around, Flyover loads estimated buildings and fills in details as needed, accounting for the rendering speed of your device and the throughput of your mobile network.




Like StreetView, Flyover provides an idea of what an area looks like before you get there. Unlike StreetView, it's not tied to a series of points along primary streets, and there's rarely a case where your StreetView is blocked by a passing truck or other street level obstructions (as often occurs to Google's street view camera vehicles).

Which is creepier?

Flyover also allows you to see the backside of buildings, down alleys, and explore open spaces that Google can't reach from its StreetView vehicles. Unlike StreetView, with Flyover you (and anyone else!) can explore your own backyard. Or, for example, the exclusive rooftop deck of the Paramount at Yerba Buena Gardens, where Apple hosts its WWDC after party.



However, with Flyover, you're getting a massaged version of what is essentially aerial photography mapped to structure dimensions. StreetView shows what someone driving through your neighborhood would see: clear details of the front of your house, cars, pedestrians and so on, details that have generated significant controversy.

Apple is less likely to incite the same response from privacy advocates because, while Flyover lets you see more, it also shows you less. You can't really spy in windows or see paparazzi-scale details. While both views are useful, StreetView is clearly more privacy-infringing simply due to its photographic realism shot from street-level spy cameras.

Flyover is unnerving in its own way, but it feels more like navigating a realistic map. Satellite and aerial images also raise some eyebrows among privacy advocates, but not to the same extent StreetView has. And Flyover is, essentially, just dynamic aerial imagery, essentially a product name Apple has applied to satellite maps when viewed from the 3D angle.

This also makes Flyover more discoverable as a feature, because it's tightly integrated into the view options of Maps rather than being a special view mode you have to manually enter.









Google Maps for iOS 6?

Until iOS 6 ships, we won't know whether Google will successfully introduce its own alternative Maps client for iOS users (it will likely want to) and whether Apple will approve it in the App Store (it may not, but Apple has already approved Google Earth, in addition to a variety of other apps it once held up on premise of "user confusion," including Google's Latitude and Google Voice).

If it does, Google and Apple will compete head to head on iOS in delivering vector maps, 3D views, turn by turn navigation and local information, although Apple will have a distinct home field advantage.

Not only is Apple's Maps app going to be the default, bundled option, but there's also no way to users (or an installed app) to specify a third party app as a default choice for handling maps. Further, Apple's iOS will direct all third party apps to the company's own servers when they make mapping API requests to draw a map in their own apps.

Besides vectors, 3D models and Flyover, there's another new technology angle Apple will be leveraging in its own iOS 6 Maps app, which will be discussed in a forthcoming segment.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 171


    The problem with Apple's approach is this: In everyday life, how often are you looking for a place in "the big city" versus some place "around town"? I'm not talking about living in the sticks, I'm talking about the difference of living just a few miles away from downtown.


     


    When you are looking for visual landmarks in these areas, there are no 3d models or views and, without them, the 2d map image quality is substandard (lower resolution satellite imagery than what we had with Google maps). So how, exactly, is that going to be better?


     


    I REALLY hope the 2d map image data improves in quality before the release. Speaking as someone who uses his iPhone for geocaching, it is clearly a step backwards in terms of image quality right now.

  • Reply 2 of 171
    Sorry, I still think street view is much more useful.
  • Reply 3 of 171
    antkm1antkm1 Posts: 1,441member


    This topic was discussed on one of Gruber's Podcasts a few weeks ago.  I agree with the argument for including a "Street View" feature in maps.  In general, most people don't visualize the world in "birds-eye" view.  We walk on the ground and view things from street level.  How many people do you know that have been totally lost when looking at paper map?  There were other points being made for a street view, but you'll have to listen to the podcast for that.  


     


    Here's a couple examples of why street view might be more helpful than fly-over:



    • if you're looking for a specific location but don't know which side of the street it's on, can't see that very clearly from fly-over.


    • if you're staying at a hotel, but don't know what's around you or just want to check out the adjacent businesses.


    • you're house/apartment hunting and want to see the conditions of the neighboring properties.


    • you're looking for a business and know the general block/location, but not the address.  Street view can zoom in on addresses.


    • you know the building you're looking for to pick someone up, but don't know where the main entrance is.


     


    Granted my points here aren't that strong, but you get the idea.


     


    Wow, I never knew you could do street view in the current maps app.  Way to hide that one on us Apple!

  • Reply 4 of 171
    irelandireland Posts: 17,645member


    "...aim to be more helpful, less creepy than Google Street View".


     


    I don't even need to look at who wrote this - I know.

  • Reply 5 of 171


    Why include 22 full-size pictures directly in the article? This article took about 10-minutes to load.


     


    Pro-tip: Include low-res picture previews that link to the full-size pictures next time...

  • Reply 6 of 171
    mazda 3smazda 3s Posts: 1,576member

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by antkm1 View Post


    This topic was discussed on one of Gruber's Podcasts a few weeks ago.  I agree with the argument for including a "Street View" feature in maps.  In general, most people don't visualize the world in "birds-eye" view.  We walk on the ground and view things from street level.  How many people do you know that have been totally lost when looking at paper map?  There were other points being made for a street view, but you'll have to listen to the podcast for that.  


     


    Here's a couple examples of why street view might be more helpful than fly-over:



    • if you're looking for a specific location but don't know which side of the street it's on, can't see that very clearly from fly-over.


    • if you're staying at a hotel, but don't know what's around you or just want to check out the adjacent businesses.


    • you're house/apartment hunting and want to see the conditions of the neighboring properties.


    • you're looking for a business and know the general block/location, but not the address.  Street view can zoom in on addresses.


    • you know the building you're looking for to pick someone up, but don't know where the main entrance is.


     


    Granted my points here aren't that strong, but you get the idea.


     


    Wow, I never knew you could do street view in the current maps app.  Way to hide that one on us Apple!



     


    Pretty much my thoughts on the issue. While Flyover is "technically" impressive, Street View is much more useful IMHO. As a NC boy, it was VERY useful when my wife and I took a trip to NYC for our one-year anniversary.


     


    As for the whole "Creepy" angle of the title/article...


     


  • Reply 7 of 171
    pokepoke Posts: 506member


    What we really need is 3D models with Street View level data. I like the information Street View gives me - I can "walk" a path before I go there and figure out exactly where I need to go - but the UI is clunky and tedious to use because you can't do it fluidly. Combining the two technologies would give the best results, or at least once the hardware can handle it. Right now it feels like neither solution is perfect although Street View is more useful.

  • Reply 8 of 171
    solipsismxsolipsismx Posts: 19,566member
    Sorry, I still think street view is much more useful.

    I've been using iOS 6 since the first beta and while Maps has improved significantly I do miss Street View. There is no substitute for finding an address by taking a virtual stroll down the street.

    After my initial "fun" with FlyOver I have not used it since. I simply don't see how this feature will be useful in finding a location. On top of that, in an area with any substantial structures you can't even begin to see the street because the height of the building is blocking your view.

    I have no problem with this feature being included but i do have a problem with a useful being removed. If Apple wanted to compete Google on mapping then why not make their own Street View. I can't imagine there are patents that prevent Apple from strapping a camera to a car, it's in how the tech is executed after that.

    Couldn't use the tech with FlyOver to get very detailed digital images that are very precise in how far away from the edges of the buildings they are so regardless of how far the vehicle is on the street you could adjust your viewing position to be on the sideway and still get the same perspective. I'd personally like a tech that would recognize every vehicle shape and people so that Apple's version of Street View would eliminate all those elements from the image with the tech that allows FlyOver to see so many angles at once. Nice clean streets without mobile object blocking facades an signage.
  • Reply 9 of 171
    maestro64maestro64 Posts: 4,637member


    I really feel bad for all you people who have to rely on a mapping program to find your way and better yet, you need pictures to know if you on the right street or in front of the right store or restaurant. Are you completely lost if your battery dies? Yeah most guys hate asking for direction, but it is not that hard to find a location, you all know streets have names and building have numbers.


     


    I will tell you and I have seen this with Google maps a number of time, it takes you to the wrong physical locations, it will say a place in one locate and the stupid street view is correct for where you are standing but, the actual place it down the road a piece with the correct address and all. So you can be standing there looking at the map with the pin and a street view picture showing you are in the right place but you did not find what you were really looking for. However, if you were just looking for house or building numbers you would have known you were not there yet.


     


    The best part of this, I personal seen these Google maps mistake in Mountain View CA the home of Google, you think they would gave their own neighborhood perfect.

  • Reply 10 of 171


    I wonder how good this is going to be OUTSIDE the US. as GSV does exists for quite a lot of cities and countries and wherever I went, I found it very very useful....

  • Reply 11 of 171


    Google has become the very essence of the word 'creepy' on the Internet.


     


    Can't wait to get the last vestige of the Mountain View Ad Company off of my iPhone.

  • Reply 12 of 171
    solipsismxsolipsismx Posts: 19,566member
    maestro64 wrote: »
    I really feel bad for all you people who have to rely on a mapping program to find your way and better yet, you need pictures to know if you on the right street or in front of the right store or restaurant. Are you completely lost if your battery dies? Yeah most guys hate asking for direction, but it is not that hard to find a location, you all know streets have names and building have numbers.

    I will tell you and I have seen this with Google maps a number of time, it takes you to the wrong physical locations, it will say a place in one locate and the stupid street view is correct for where you are standing but, the actual place it down the road a piece with the correct address and all. So you can be standing there looking at the map with the pin and a street view picture showing you are in the right place but you did not find what you were really looking for. However, if you were just looking for house or building numbers you would have known you were not there yet.

    The best part of this, I personal seen these Google maps mistake in Mountain View CA the home of Google, you think they would gave their own neighborhood perfect.

    So you never use any sort of map for anything? You automatically know where every street?

    Do you know realize the benefit of Street View that allows you get information about a location without actually going to that street. Example: "What was the name of that [insert business name] we were at when we were in [insert city name] last [insert previous time frame]?"
  • Reply 13 of 171
    conrailconrail Posts: 489member

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by ghostface147 View Post



    Sorry, I still think street view is much more useful.


    Me too, but for some reason, spending millions to create a free service just to keep you from using someone else's free service is terribly important to tech companies.

  • Reply 14 of 171

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by SolipsismX View Post



    I have no problem with this feature being included but i do have a problem with a useful being removed. If Apple wanted to compete Google on mapping then why not make their own Street View. I can't imagine there are patents that prevent Apple from strapping a camera to a car, it's in how the tech is executed after that.

     


     


    Google has been sending out cars with cameras for years around the world (not just around the USA).  It has been an incredibly time consuming effort, and they've had their own legal run-ins and privacy issues along the way. 


     


    For Apple to come along and redo the same thing would, in my opinion, be impossible in the shortened time window that they have.  Google has thousands of people working on Google Maps.  Apple has not put the same amount of human resources into their project to be able to play that kind of catch up.  Maybe Apple could borrow Google's driverless vehicles and then use them to Street View map the world...

  • Reply 15 of 171
    boogabooga Posts: 1,077member
    Spin it how you want, but working in NYC I can tell you that iOS 6's maps app is way, way less useful than iOS 5. It will be a dramatic downgrade. No subway directions, no street view so you know what the storefront looks like... GPS doesn't work great in the city anyway... I expect Apple to have a PR nightmare on its hands next month...
  • Reply 16 of 171
    solipsismxsolipsismx Posts: 19,566member
    Google has been sending out cars with cameras for years around the world (not just around the USA).  It has been an incredibly time consuming effort, and they've had their own legal run-ins and privacy issues along the way. 

    For Apple to come along and redo the same thing would, in my opinion, be impossible in the shortened time window that they have.  Google has thousands of people working on Google Maps.  Apple has not put the same amount of human resources into their project to be able to play that kind of catch up.  Maybe Apple could borrow Google's driverless vehicles and then use them to Street View map the world...

    Sure, ti's expensive and time consuming, but it's not beyond Apple's ken. On top of that, they've had the time. They first bought Placebase in July of 2009, if I'm not mistaken. So we're talking over 3 years since we know they've been interested in replacing Google Maps but I'm guessing they considered this before the iPhone was even announced.

    And if they couldn't recreate it for legal reasons I hope they at least tried to license StreetView because it is a very useful feature. I do wonder why StreetView is an issue but using planes to blanket an area doesn't have any issues.
  • Reply 17 of 171


    I wonder if Apple introduced their own Street View to their maps application if it would be less "creepy" than Google's? :rolleyes:


     


    As someone who has used iOS6 for a while now, I feel I'm in a good position to give an opinion: The 3D maps, while beautiful, are damned near useless. Microsoft had 3D in their maps years ago, but it's just never been that useful, especially since, like Apple's version, only a tiny number of cities are modelled, and even then only in their metropolitan areas.


     


    Google Android's maps are still largely superior, with a ton of features that the Apple version never got (it had proper turn-by-turn GPS navigation years ago).


     


    Street View is the biggest loss from Apple's attempt to be more independent. I've lost count of the number of times it's been useful in knowing what the building I'm looking for looks like.

  • Reply 18 of 171
    antkm1antkm1 Posts: 1,441member

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by SolipsismX View Post



    I have no problem with this feature being included but i do have a problem with a useful being removed. If Apple wanted to compete Google on mapping then why not make their own Street View. I can't imagine there are patents that prevent Apple from strapping a camera to a car, it's in how the tech is executed after that.


    That was exactly my point when they first unveiled the features of the new Maps App.  Hasn't Apple's philosophy always been to make products and services that were significantly better (in all aspects) than the competition?  To me, this new App is a "Beta" at best.  Before Siri, I can't remember when Apple produced "Beta" versions of software?  This seems very Un-Apple-like.  They've always had the position to produced finished products the first time and only improve with updates.  This new vision seems like a step backwards for Apple.

  • Reply 19 of 171

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by SolipsismX View Post





    Sure, ti's expensive and time consuming, but it's not beyond Apple's ken. On top of that, they've had the time. They first bought Placebase in July of 2009, if I'm not mistaken. So we're talking over 3 years since we know they've been interested in replacing Google Maps but I'm guessing they considered this before the iPhone was even announced.

    And if they couldn't recreate it for legal reasons I hope they at least tried to license StreetView because it is a very useful feature. I do wonder why StreetView is an issue but using planes to blanket an area doesn't have any issues.


     


    The whole point of replacing Google map is to stop Google from collecting iOS users' data. If Apple license streetview, obv Google would want data of people who use streetview, defeating the whole purpose. 


     


    Apple is doing this for competitive reasons, this is really not about user experience so it's pointless to complain. 

  • Reply 20 of 171
    antkm1antkm1 Posts: 1,441member

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Maestro64 View Post


    I really feel bad for all you people who have to rely on a mapping program to find your way and better yet, you need pictures to know if you on the right street or in front of the right store or restaurant. Are you completely lost if your battery dies? Yeah most guys hate asking for direction, but it is not that hard to find a location, you all know streets have names and building have numbers.


     


    I will tell you and I have seen this with Google maps a number of time, it takes you to the wrong physical locations, it will say a place in one locate and the stupid street view is correct for where you are standing but, the actual place it down the road a piece with the correct address and all. So you can be standing there looking at the map with the pin and a street view picture showing you are in the right place but you did not find what you were really looking for. However, if you were just looking for house or building numbers you would have known you were not there yet.


     


    The best part of this, I personal seen these Google maps mistake in Mountain View CA the home of Google, you think they would gave their own neighborhood perfect.



    I think there's no argument that Google maps is flawed in it's location finding.  And personally I have an excellent sense of direction.  Everyone who knows me will confirm that.  But in general, most people don't have such a good skill.  Consider when you're on the subway and need to know what your surroundings look like upon exiting, street view is much more helpful than fly-over.  Many times, the subway exits will have you turned around if you don't know where you're going.  I travel a lot and usually when I go out to explore, I have the street view pulled up so I know what I'm looking for.  Makes finding places much easier when I know what the building looks like when driving/walking up to it.  And sometimes the roads can have traffic and speeds that hinder looking around, searching for addresses.  So being able to quickly glance for a building rather than an Address makes more sense in those cases.

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