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Google will release the first three-dimensional maps for several cities by the end of the year, the company said at a news conference at its San Francisco offices yesterday. News of the Google Earth and Maps upgrades come a week before Apple is expected to dump Google as its default mapping technology on its iOS mobile platform.

Google declined to name the cities, but it showed a demonstration of a 3D map of San Francisco, in which a user can navigate around an aerial view of the city.

“We’re trying to create the illusion that you’re just flying over the city, almost as if you were in your own personal helicopter,” said Peter Birch, a product manager for Google Earth.

Google’s head of engineering for its maps product, Brian McClendon, said the company was using a fleet of airplanes owned and operated by contractors and flying exclusively for Google.

Google has used airplanes to collect aerial photos in the past, but the latest effort marks the first time the company will deploy the planes in a systemic manner to build a standard feature in one of its products.

By the end of the year, Google said it expects to have 3D map coverage for metropolitan areas with a combined population of 300 million people. The first 3D cityscape will be available within weeks. The new auto-generated buildings will effectively supplant the current 3D buildings for Google Earth for mobile for some major cities, the old 3D data will not necessarily be taken away on the desktop version of Google Earth. Ideally, Google will leave an option in the Layers area to allow users to choose to use the new mesh data, the old 3D buildings, or no 3D buildings.

While the StreetView Trike allows Google to reach a lot of remote areas, the new “StreetView Trekker” is essentially a StreetView back pack. At only 40 pounds, it will allow them to go almost anywhere and easily add fresh imagery to StreetView.

Another feature, Google’s offline maps, will work with the compass in your phone or tablet. Google has offered the ability to “cache” maps for selected areas to your device for almost a year, but it’s been a “labs” feature. To enable offline maps, you select a top-level menu option to save a local area — currently Labs supports a 10-square mile area.

Asked about potential privacy implications, Brian McClendon, VP of Engineering, Google Maps, said the privacy issues were similar to all aerial imagery and that the type of 45-degree-angle pictures that the planes take have been used for a long time.

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