Better than 3D Maps from Apple and Google? Hover Aims for Ground-Level Detail with Practical Value

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But there’s another equally pressing issue with mapping technology when you start deploying photorealistic representations of areas and inviting people to depend on what they’re seeing: datedness.

Existing streets rarely change, but what’s surrounding those streets structurally speaking can change completely over the course of a year, say the area mapped was previously undeveloped. Google Maps in satellite mode is sometimes as much as a year behind, in terms of its imaging data, for instance. I asked Lu if that wasn’t the biggest challenge for any mapping company.

“There’s two things involved here and I think you’ve hit on one of them — basically the ‘it’s not up to date thing’,” said Lu. “The other thing is the resolution that you can get by the process. I’m convinced that what folks really need is not the flight simulator mode, which sure, it’s kind of cool to look at it, but what’s actually useful is when there’s enough information at a small enough level that it actually affects what you do.”

Doesn’t Google Maps Street View already more or less do that? Street View is the feature in Google Maps where, if you zoom all the way in — assuming there’s data for the area in question — it transitions to an eye-level view of the area based on stitched-together photos that you can pan around using picture-warping technology that offers the crude illusion of three-dimensionality.

Altman’s response: Street View is too complicated and unfriendly to use at this point.

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“You talk to any person about Street View and it’s like, the last time they used it was three weeks or three months ago, and they used it for a moment because they needed to know something about a facade, and that was the only way they could figure it out,” he said. “And of course the moment they’ve got what they wanted, they get the heck out of there. They don’t spend any more time in that environment, because that environment is very clunky and difficult.”

Lu said that Hover wants to see where its tactical-level technology — already successfully deployed in the military — “can be used by everyday people, or by folks who want to reach everyday people, especially in urban areas.” And he has a metric for determining usability.

While he was working for Google, Lu said the company was trying to determine at what level of resolution satellite imagery made a difference in user engagement. The answer: about one meter.

“We found that at that resolution, people became much more engaged with the maps,” said Lu. “They spent more time with them, they went back and used them more.” More importantly, said Lu, at one meter resolution, people began to add their own information to the maps.

“At better than one meter resolution, people started to look for stuff, because at that resolution you’re beginning to see cars and the details on houses. That’s when people started to make corrections and began to mark places on those maps.”

“The aerial flyby of the city, that isn’t what’s useful,” added Lu.

It’s a point that resonated with me during the interview — as cool and clever as Google’s and Apple’s respective 3D mapping tools look, I can’t imagine doing more than fooling around in 3D mode for novelty’s sake, or maybe for educational purposes if I want to show my children the Eiffel Tower or Taj Mahal in a metropolitan context. What’s missing from both Apple’s and Google’s 3D maps is a reason to use them for practical, everyday stuff, like seeing what’s going on in an area at the tactical level right now.

Let’s assume for a moment that Hover is actually able to collate and serve the data in a way that satisfies its usability goals. How do you capture all that data in real-time and integrate it with existing map data? Google and Apple are talking about using planes and helicopters to survey cities by grabbing information aerially at 45-degree angles, for instance, but you’re not going to want airplanes and helicopters perpetually circling cities at all hours just to keep maps up to date.

“You can build the base maps that way,” said Lu. “But the real stuff that matters to people, once you have a base map, is what’s going on down low at the sidewalk level. And what we didn’t see at [Google's or Apple's] 3D map events is the ability to fuse that type of imagery into the data set. That’s where it’s going to become game-changing.”

“Our system allows updated imagery to be added on top of existing models, so the models can be incrementally improved,” said Lu.

“The sources could be theoretically anything, any sensor on the street level that takes a photo,” said Altman, referring to everything from fixed cameras to smartphones. “Whether you’re a vendor or a consumer or a teenager who’s just doing this for fun or being social, the crowd-sourcing element is there because we can bring the images in and augment textures with that. Or certainly there are folks who collect street level imagery that aren’t Google, commercial entities that collect data with cars that have sensors on top of them, and we can integrate that as well. We’re really agnostic from an imagery-source perspective.”

What about vetting the integrity of the image, or assuring someone using the maps that what they’re looking at is representative of the actual area being modeled?

“That sensor in your pocket, every time it takes a photo, it provides not just a photo, but some sort of rough GPS information and a timestamp,” said Altman. “The data is all there, it’s just a matter of someone creating a platform that manages that data in a way that’s easy for the consumer to quickly see if the information was captured five seconds ago, five days ago, or five years ago.”

Lu admitted that issues like these — call this one “photorealism integrity” — haven’t yet been fully resolved. The current solution: “Many, many approaches,” said Altman, “Typically a summation of dozens of approaches, all added together to pick away at the problem.”

With all it hopes to bring to the table from a tactical standpoint — the missing novelty-to-practical-use link — is Hover looking to get snatched up by an Apple or a Google, like so many prior 3D mapping outfits?

“We always take the position that we’re not trying to build a company to sell it, we’re trying to build a successful company,” said Altman. “That means finding a problem, a pain point, that a customer has and solving it in a really intelligent way. We’ve already had success with that, and we want to keep doing that.”

MORE: Google Touts 3D, Offline Features for Maps Amid Reports of Apple Setback

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