Google turns on indoor mapping with Google Maps 6.0 for Android

One of Google’s (s goog) advantages in mobile has been its robust Google Maps application, which it’s used to great effect on Android. But it hasn’t undertaken indoor mapping, something rival Microsoft (s msft) and other startups have tried to do. Now that’s changing with Google Maps 6.0 for Android, which brings much of the power of Google’s mapping product into large indoor public spaces.

Android users who download the latest version of Google Maps from Android Market will now be able to locate themselves inside airports, malls and big department stores that partner with Google and share their floor plans. Google Maps will offer the familiar blue dot that shows where a user is surrounded by a very rich representation of indoor spaces.

Google said users will be able to see specific maps for each floor they visit with their location accurate to within 5 to 10 meters. Users will see not just stores but also points of interests such as airport gates, ATMs or bathrooms represented on the screen. They can also apply familiar gesture inputs like tilt and twist to interact with the maps in 3-D.

Some of the early launch partners for indoor maps include Macy’s, Ikea, Bloomingdales and Home Depot and airports in San Francisco, Chicago, Las Vegas, Houston, Atlanta, Seattle and other cities. Google is releasing a self-serve tool for venue owners to upload their floor plans to Google for inclusion in Google Maps.

Google Maps product manager Steve Lee said the addition of indoor maps is the most significant addition to Google Maps this year. He said Google took a while to refine and optimize its location technology, which leverages GPS, cellular and Wi-Fi signals to help determine a person’s whereabouts. He said the process had to be optimized for indoor use and to be able to identify which floor a user is on, which changes what map they see. Ultimately, it fills out the promise of Google Maps, making it more useful to consumers.

“If you use Google Maps and asked for directions to the airport, it does a pretty good job, but when you get to the airport there’s a vast blank spot. This launch aims to change that,” said Lee.

As I mentioned before, Bing Maps from Microsoft has already implemented this for hundreds of locations. And startups like Micello have also looked to build robust indoor maps. This is a big step forward for Google because it brings this service to the most popular smartphone platform, which can integrate this functionality into its native mapping application. And it creates some more separation from Apple’s (s aapl) iOS, which doesn’t offer indoor mapping. I personally could use this when I head to the flagship Macy’s store in New York, which occupies almost an entire block. I’m usually lost inside and even finding a bathroom is a chore.

I think this is going be a key area for companies like Google and Microsoft (s msft), who can leverage these indoor maps for big marketing and advertising opportunities. Retailers could provide a branded experience inside the mapping apps when people are viewing the map nearby or they could provide quick access to their catalog or view inside the store. Or stores could use a consumer’s location inside a mall to offer timely deals and discounts provided through Google Maps. This is something that other companies have been also pursuing but Google could further leverage its applications to help retailers and brands market directly to consumers, provided they opt in.