Online Map Makers Gathering Data to Render 3-D Landscapes for Web Surfers, Mobile Phone Users

One digital cartographer, taking pictures every 8 meters from his van, gathers about 20GB per day of mapping data.

Digital maps are flat, but that’s changing. Mapping companies are adding three dimensions to their maps, to enhance the view people can get.

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I spent part of a recent day driving around Boston in a TeleAtlas minivan outfitted with two on-board computers, 1,000GB of storage (half of it for backup) and, on top of the van, two lasers, six cameras and a GPS antenna. The lasers track geographic data like height and slope of roads and the surroundings, and these are combined with the pictures and existing TeleAtlas data to create digital maps in full 3-D.

TeleAtlas van
A TeleAtlas data-collection vehicle.

The driver follows routes set up for him by the company and downloaded ahead of time, and other than making sure that the van is following the route, the cameras and laser do the rest of the work.

This van is one of about 50 TeleAtlas runs globally that is driving around locations, primarily in the U.S. and Europe, taking pictures about every 8 meters of entire buildings and feeding them into the hard drive. My driver, Christopher Errizo, has done about 60,000 miles in this van since February, starting in Louisville, Ky. Depending on weather and light conditions, he can go from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m., and pull in about 20GB of data a day.

On the Road to Mapping Maturity

The question is, why are TeleAtlas, and its rival Navteq, the other big database for digital mapping information, going 3-D?

It’s a sign that technology is advancing. Even some high-end cell phones can now handle 3-D images and other content. “As networks get more robust, you can download video,” notes Darren Koenig, director of wireless, Internet and telecom at TeleAtlas, in a recent interview.

So far, though, the Hewlett-Packard iPAQ 310 Travel Companion is the only product in the U.S. to offer the TeleAtlas 3-D feature on a handheld—it bought TeleAtlas’ 3-D Landmarks for about 400 landmarks in the U.S. and Canada, an offering it introduced in September.

3-D image Yankee Stadium
TeleAtlas' 3-D rendering of Yankee Stadium in New York

In Europe, Sony’s PlayStation Portable Go!Explore uses TeleAtlas’ 3-D landmarks and includes the nascent TeleAtlas 3-D maps of cities like Berlin and London. MioMap, a European maker of portable navigation devices, offers these maps on its new C620 models. Jack Gold, president of J. Gold Associates, a technology consultancy in Northborough, Mass., says that data in three dimensions is better for the human eye, but compares 3-D mapping to 3-D interface Windows Aero, in Microsoft Vista.

“Has that made people run out and go buy Vista machines? For most people the answer has been no,” Gold says. He says adding 3-D was a way to stay relevant for TeleAtlas and Navteq, both of which are being acquired (TeleAtlas by GPS maker TomTom , and Navteq by the world’s biggest cell phone maker, Nokia ).

Rich Gibson, coauthor of Mapping Hacks and Google Maps Hacks, agrees that the most obvious reason for these companies to add 3-D was also trivial: “because it’s cool.”

But he says that maps are a kind of story, and 3-D “lets you create richer stories. You can say more about reality when you have more data.”

For now, he says that 3-D maps are just a baby step toward developing more useful maps. “It’s the scaffold, the framework upon which the things we do in life can rest,” he says. When 3-D will become really important is when sensor networks develop over time. That will make it possible to enhance 3-D maps with any variety of features, in real time.

Advertising Spots on Map Makers' Agenda

3-D is just one of the things on the agenda for mapping companies. For instance, TeleAtlas is pushing to develop more content in 2008, working not only on expanding its maps but also on adding travel-related videos, or overlay features such as Wi-Fi hotspots in given areas, or places to buy biodiesel fuel in the U.S., to name two existing ones.

TeleAtlas is also experimenting with putting brands on its maps—already more than 100 companies, like McDonald’s, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts and Exxon, get special logos for their locations. These could eventually lead to new kinds of advertising.

But, like 3-D maps, for now these are experiments in potential location-based services, rather than full-fledged enhancements.

Editor's note: This story includes one corrected sentence. To read more, see CIO.com's corrections page.

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