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Friday, June 21, 2024

Google Maps Gets More Bike-Friendly

Cyclists might be the only beings on the planet who still ask others for directions. That’s because there’s a bunch of necessary bike-specific knowledge you can get only from other cyclists. How steep is that hill? What are the bike lanes like on this route? An app usually can’t tell you those things.

Now, Google is adding some new features to Maps that will tell you those things. The improved view for cyclists includes more data about bike routes (when available) that shows where the bike lanes are, how busy vehicle traffic is, and whether your chosen route includes a steep hill. It can also warn you about stairs along the route, or tell you that you have some gravel sections to look forward to. Maps will also provide turn-by-turn directions made just for bikes.

Cyclists will now have to find some other excuse to talk to one another. Maybe they can complain about the lack of transportation infrastructure investments

Google is also adding 3D photorealistic views of landmarks and more nuanced tools for sharing your location with others. Earlier this year, the company teased a Maps feature it calls Immersive View, a souped up Street View setting that lets you zoom and pan around the world with unprecedented freedom. Google’s new landmarks aren’t exactly that, and the company hasn’t said when the feature will actually come out, but it seems a step in that direction.

Along with the Maps update, some changes are coming to the Google Play store, the official repository of apps on Android devices. The updates are aimed at cleaning up some of the more unsavory app practices on the store. That includes banning lookalike apps that try to trick people into downloading them, removing vaccine misinformation, and limiting full-screen ads in apps. While the company’s changes may help ads be somewhat less annoying, Google still isn’t ready to do away with tracking cookies entirely. Nearly all Play Store updates will be live by August 31.

TikTok’s Got Game

Clearly, no social platform is interested in staying in its lane anymore. While every other app is busy trying to be TikTok, the Chinese platform has been eager to shake things up on its own. The app began its foray into games last November, when it announced a partnership with game developer Zynga. (You know, of Farmville infamy.) Now, as spotted by TechCrunch, TikTok seems to have quietly rolled out a few games on its platform. They’re made by a few different developers, none of them Zynga—for now, at least. The games are a tiny part of TikTok’s platform, available if a user taps through the videos posted by someone who attached a game to their upload. You play the game right there “inside” the person’s video.

TikTok hasn’t officially announced the feature or commented about whether it would roll out more broadly. But expansion is certainly possible, even if TikTok does have a history of shelving somewhat promising experiments like its Shop tab.

Yup, YouTube Wants to Be TikTok Too

In September 2020, YouTube launched its Shorts feature, which lets users make quick clips of video that can be played in an endless scroll. It’s been a successful enough effort by the video juggernaut, though it hasn’t taken over the zeitgeist quite like TikTok has. Now, YouTube is trying to make it even easier to post Shorts. On Thursday, YouTube posted an update on its support page that it was letting users convert portions of longer YouTube videos into 60-second clips instead of just making a Short on its own. Creators can embed links that will take viewers to the longer version of the video, keeping even more eyeballs on the platform.

In other “everything is TokTok now” news …

Instagram Gets Reel

Even if you aren’t on Instagram much, you’ve probably heard about its controversial Reels feature. It’s a tab full of streaming videos, often from accounts you don’t follow. It’s a blatant ripoff of TikTok, even using some of the same songs and sound effects you'll find on the mega-popular social platform. And now Instagram has let it be known that it plans to go all-in on the full-screen looping videos.

Last week, Instagram parent company Meta said it would change the algorithms of its sites to be more like TikTok. Now, that’s bled over into Instagram and Reels. The backlash from users was swift. Reels has proven wildly unpopular and even managed to irk a Kardashian or two. Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri and Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg have both defended the TikTokification of their apps, telling users that the company’s usage data shows this experience is what they really want anyway. (In an earnings call, Zuckerberg said he expects AI-powered recommendations will make up half of your Instagram feed by next year.)

Mosseri walked back some of his statements just a day later. In an interview with journalist Casey Newton at Platformer, Mosseri said Instagram will “take a big step back, regroup, and figure out how we want to move forward.” That doesn’t seem to translate to any big change of plan, though, and most likely will result in slowing the rollout slightly—just enough to give the uproar time to die down.

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This week, WIRED's Gadget Lab podcast is all about this debacle. WIRED senior writer Kate Knibbs walks us through the rise of Reels and how Meta's efforts to TikTokify its products has made them all worse.

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