Digital maps are an essential part of everyday life. Chances are you’ve used one of the many popular services as reference in the last 24 or so hours — for directions, finding a restaurant, transit. They help keep us running at full-tilt, getting from place to place, making unfamiliar places feel like home. Without maps — good maps, properly executed maps — we’d be lost, wandering aimlessly. At least I would.

That’s why I’m particularly excited about Nokia’s brand new Here, the cross-platform cloud-based location service that was just announced on Tuesday.

Among an overcapacity room of analysts and media, CEO Stephen Elop excitedly explained Nokia’s forward-looking vision of Here, and exactly why it redefines the current digital map landscape. This isn’t just about simply getting users from one place to the next, or showing questionable restaurant reviews. Here is designed as a thorough representation of the world as we know it, right in front of us; “Location with context,” Nokia said, a deeper experience that allows users to better explore, discover and share.

With over 20 years of map and location expertise, Nokia is offering up the most up-to-date service out there through a globally integrated model. Information isn’t just obtained through common industrial methods, but through continued usage and the community. It’s like one big collaborative ever-changing map that evolves and improves the more it’s in use.

The better it gets, the more information it displays — up to 2.7 million changes may be implemented a day. And if something isn’t accurate — a road isn’t showing up, for example — usage can fix that right up. In fact, there’s a Map Creator tab right on that allows people to plug in information that wasn’t otherwise there in the first place. Nokia explained that community contributions will take up to a few days to be validated, and individual users will essentially get ratings depending on their accuracy.

Probably the coolest part of Here, though, is Nokia’s implementation of earthmine reality capture and processing technology. As part of Here’s 3D map capabilities, earthmine is giving Nokia the data necessary to render beautifully made maps. To my eyes, the demos Nokia went through looked like I was peering at the making-of a spy movie. The way transitions zoomed in and swooped down to street level was quite impressive. Buildings and locations actually look realistic, and not like a melted wax model.

“Maps are hard to get right – but location is revolutionizing how we use technology to engage with the real world,” said Michael Halbherr, Executive Vice President of Location & Commerce. “That’s why we have been investigating and will continue to invest in building the world’s most powerful location offering, one that is unlike anything in the market today.”

Since Here hails from the cloud, Nokia reiterated that “everyone” is a cartographer. If you’re connected, you’re contributing to the mapping experience. One really interesting feature was collections, which makes every individual user map different. Looking at a demo, you really get a sense of where a person likes to hang out, and where they like to eat. Invasive? Maybe. But Nokia argued that the feature helps bring a city to life in a unique way for everyone, which we certainly can’t argue with. You can add places like restaurants to specific cards, too — the demo had a San Francisco card, with places of interest and spots to eat saved.

And it will all be available across all platforms, though Nokia is merely launching an Android SDK for OEMs in Q1 2013. iOS, on the other hand, will get a full-fledged app, just in case there are Apple Maps users looking for an alternative, Nokia said. Of course, all the very best features will integrate with some of Nokia’s cooler software on Windows Phone 8, but Here won’t be a slouch on other platforms. Here on iOS will give users live traffic, public transit, voice-guided walking directions, and turn-by-turn directions, although that feature will allegedly come at a cost, Nokia said. Otherwise, the app is completely free, and should give Apple a kick in the rear to improve its own offering.

Nokia is throwing its solution in a hat full of competing mapping services. But it sounds exciting, and useful, and fast, and it’s great that the company is making it available across multiple platforms. Google Maps is still the likeliest go-to service on the market, and a tremendously useful one at that. But Nokia is on to something with Here. If it lives up to its potential, and works in a manner Nokia demonstrated, then consumers will have a viable option that’ll give competitors something to really worry about, on their own turf no less.