Nokia and its mapping division Navteq are developing a rival to Street View, one that offers full three-dimensional computer models of villages, towns and cities, and could one day allow those urban centers to form the backdrop to realistic games.
Street View (pictured) was launched in 2007 and has transformed online mapping by providing panoramic views from many of the world's streets. But although it nods towards the third dimension, Street View falls short of a true 3D experience, says Ville-Veikko Mattila at the Nokia Research Centre in Tampere, Finland.
Street View presents the viewer with a series of 2D panoramic photos. "What we're developing is a full 3D rendering of our locations and environments," says Mattila. "That's a big difference."
Objects rendered in Nokia's system will resemble their 3D originals better than they do in Street View, says Mattila. But perhaps the most noticeable way in which Nokia's service will differ from Google's is that users will be able to move smoothly through urban environments, almost as if they were in a photorealistic driving game, suggesting the firm could license its 3D cityscapes to games companies that want cheap but realistic 3D urban models. Navigating through Google Street View, by contrast, simply involves hopping between panoramas photographed from a series of set locations.
The accurate 3D rendering of buildings in the new system will make it easy to generate a set of 3D coordinates for a particular building, or even a particular floor in an office building occupied by a business – information that could help companies augment the virtual world with location-specific adverts, says Nokia.
Nokia's proposed service relies on two technologies: one to construct a virtual cityscape, the other to clothe it in images taken from life. The 3D models that make up virtual streets and buildings are built with data from Navteq's nascent Journey View system, a dataset of mapping measurements made by the laser-radar technique known as lidar. These models are then decorated by City Scene, software written by Mattila's group that projects and accurately stitches photographs onto the 3D cityscape.
Navteq already uses GPS-equipped cars to create digital maps of the world's roads, which it sells to satnav makers like Garmin. But in November a new type of Navteq car will take to the roads: the Truecar. "As well as higher-resolution panoramic cameras, the Truecars will also include laser radar," says a Navteq spokesman. "The cars will be coming to London in November and then major cities around Europe, and the data will turn up in navigation products in 2011."
It remains to be seen whether Truecars are viewed any more favourably than Google's camera-equipped cars have been.
The Truecar data could go into a variety of navigation products, says Robert Hanke of Navteq's office in Berlin, Germany. Satnav makers may integrate the virtual environments into their in-car devices to allow users to preview a journey before they set off. Because Nokia's maps are based on real 3D measurements, the technology could accurately highlight the height of obstacles, such as low bridges, that might require some vehicles to take a detour.
Google also acquired lidar data as its cars swept through our streets – the information is used in Google Maps Mobile to correct the exaggerated angles between buildings when a Street View panoramic photo is rendered on a small screen.
The search giant declined to comment when asked if it, too, plans to use its lidar data to construct 3D models of towns and cities. Nevertheless, Google says it welcomes Nokia's move into 3D mapping. "The more products and services that exist, the greater the rate of innovation, which ultimately benefits consumers and provides them with even greater choice," a Google spokesperson told New Scientist.
Navteq's Journey View dataset will also lead to a range of novel 3D location and navigation applications over and above Street View, predicts Tony King-Smith, a vice-president of UK-based Imagination Technologies, which designs the powerful graphics processors in iPhones and many other smartphones.
At the Future World Symposium in London yesterday, King-Smith demonstrated one such work-in-progress application to New Scientist: an iPhone 4 app written by French software house Visio Globe which overlaid high-resolution computer graphics – rather than photographs – onto the Journey View lidar data to create a convincing 3D fly-through model of Singapore. The smooth motion promised by Nokia was readily apparent, even on a phone.
"Location-based services are going to become incredibly rich and broad," says King-Smith. "Navteq's 3D technology will help drive some next-generation apps that look like being fun and engaging, and also very useful."
Mattila demonstrated an early version of the Street View rival at Nokia World in London this week.