3D maps: you’ll be able to walk around in them like in a virtual world

Bing Maps streetside view enhanced with user photoOnline maps are extremely useful, but not very innovative in their present form, as most maps we use today merely mirror paper maps. The road map serves most of our everyday needs, but as more and more data with a location component to it is accumulated – geo-tagged photos, videos, or information from social networks like Facebook and Twitter – we’ll need to represent that data in a way that adds value without overwhelming users.

And as mobile devices gain more processing power, they’ll be able to access raw data stored in a server and display it in whole new ways.

Mapping technology specialists say that these two developments — the increase of geo-tagged elements and the increased power of mobile devices — mean that browsing a map will increasingly mean moving around in a virtual, three-dimensional world like in the state-of-the-art video games seen on consoles like the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360.

It won’t be a simple feat to get maps to that stage, though. “Maps are already some of the most demanding web-based applications there are,” says Pasquale DeMaio, a program manager at Microsoft’s Bing Maps. “Video games have the advantage of loading data from a disc, which we don’t have [since online maps have to rely on Internet connectivity issues like bandwidth]. We will always have to slim down our data requirements while still providing an immersive, world-class experience.”

The delivery of rich media in maps is something that all the players in the field are committed to. There are already photos, videos and other sorts of information that can be tied to specific physical locations to add value to maps. The latest fad in location-based services (LBS) is the “check-in”, which many companies like Foursquare, Gowalla and Booyah are building entire businesses on.

As people use smartphones and tablets to interact with various social networks, more types of data, and more spatially relevant data — such as displaying tweets and check-ins on a map — will be available. All this data from various sources can weave a far more interesting tapestry than any one source can provide, DeMaio points out.

UpNext builds interactive 3D maps of citiesIntegrating data from different sources to maps is something that UpNext, a small developer of 3D maps for mobile and touchscreen devices, is stressing, too. UpNext CEO Danny Moon thinks maps will be the central interface for all location-based data. He believes they’ll take an interactive, 3D form and will use technologies like augmented reality that can layer information onto real world places viewed through a device’s camera.

“Maps as we know them are pretty static at this point,” says Moon. He says that while current maps are tile-based,  consisting of 2D-image tiles that are downloaded from a server to a mobile device, like Google Maps, “next-generation maps can convey real-time data like tweets, check-ins or transit information,” says Moon.

UpNext (which VentureBeat covered at length here) claims that the way to go about making these “next-generation maps” is by building genuine 3D worlds using vector-based maps (see demo video). The three-dimensional views that Google Street View or Bing Maps provide at their closest zoom-in level are 3D images built from two-dimensional photographs that are stitched together, says Moon. This can make for very impressive results, as Microsoft has demoed with PhotoSynth (see Microsoft’s Blaise Agüera y Arcas’ presentation at TED). But Moon wants to see 3D mapping go even further.

Instead of stitching photos together, UpNext’s suggestion is to build virtual 3D models of buildings. The 3D models can then be textured with images and have layers displaying information on the models, such as what businesses are inside a mall. This, claims UpNext co-founder Raj Advani, will change our experience of maps.

“The end result will be a very smooth experience of virtually walking down a city block. Maps need to be more of a first-person-shooter-style game, visually, and that’s where we are moving,” Advani says. Maybe users will be able to see other users’ avatars in the city like in the virtual worlds of Second Life or Habbo, or see things like where the next bus is right now and when it will be at their stop.

Full 3D environments, like virtual worlds in video games, mean that objects like buildings – or trashcans, trees, lamp posts – can be rendered in real-time and viewed from any height and at all angles, rotating them smoothly. UpNext builds models of cities, for instance, the 40,000 buildings of New York’s borough of Manhattan. The company’s compressor converts this mass of polygons into an internet-ready cityscape, using a renderer to display the 3D environment on-screen. Google Maps’ Street View or Bing Maps’ streetside views are still based on the tile-based mentality in the sense that information is downloaded from a server in chunks, Advani explains. That’s why moving on the street in Google Maps or Bing Maps means moving the camera in increments, instead of moving smoothly like video game characters move in virtual cities.

Until recently, cell phones couldn’t have handled such sophisticated maps. But these days they boast so much processing power that they can render raw data from servers and display it the way they like. In a way, there’s Steve Jobs to thank for that. “When the iPhone came along with its 3D acceleration, it created a trend that the other handset manufacturers have decided to follow, thankfully,” Advani says.

Technological innovation in maps has been traditionally done by the big players like Google, MapQuest and Microsoft, because maps were costly and the giants had the resources to go out and photograph every street of every city. Now, the game has changed and will change even more with such phenomena as crowd-sourcing, or the availability of open-source location information, like OpenStreetMap, which provides maps free of charge to developers. This means more opportunities for smaller start-ups to innovate new technology in mapping, like UpNext, who is focused on being a mapping platform, or an engine for 3D maps.

And that new technology may end up being acquired by one of the big companies, or integrated into other products: For example, UpNext doesn’t have the imagery to texture its models, and it could partner with somebody who has that resource. The company – with a team of only four people – has been developing its technology for four years and has been bootstrapped the entire time. Now, UpNext is raising funding, and Advani says this is going to be a big summer for the company. It remains to be seen if the market is as convinced about the direction maps seem to be going as the technology guys.

But the giants are not sleeping, either. Microsoft is enhancing its maps with its Silverlight technology, a rich media application platform similar to Adobe’s Flash. Silverlight is heavily used in Bing Maps to enable things like zooming in smoothly from a top-down satellite image to a streetside view. And, says DeMaio, Microsoft is exploring using all the different technologies, be they tile-based or vector-based. “There are experiences which are better with real-time rendering on the local device and others, where it is better to use pre-processed imagery,” he says, alluding to the the trade-offs imposed by the technology.

“With such a flexible approach to the backdrop, we can layer almost limitless types of data with vastly different visualizations and a myriad of sources,” says DeMaio. “The fun is just beginning.”

[This story is part of a weekly series on location-based services, written by VentureBeat’s JP Manninen. If you have an idea for a story you would like to see in this series, drop a line to jp@venturebeat.com]

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