Big Data

Google’s former advanced project group leader — and astronaut — creating new crowdsourced 3-D maps

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I guess it’s only appropriate that a company started by a Navy Seal and a marine is now run by an astronaut and a very successful career executive.

The company is Hover, and it creates advanced real-life 3-D imagery from just about any images: smartphone snaps, drone airplane photography, satellite images, and yes, home movies. Today it’s announcing new funding — $3.1 million — and a new CEO, Kevin Reilley, the former top exec at Pictometry, which provides “bird’s eye” photography for Microsoft’s Bing maps.

“We started by selling a product for the military,” Ed Lu, the company’s chief technology officer told me. “Our product was used by special forces to understand what they’re getting into.”

Lu is the former astronaut. He spent 206 days in space, most of it in the International Space Station, and went EVA for spacewalks from the Shuttle. After every geek’s dream job, he moved on to Google, where he ran the company’s advanced project group and worked on image systems for Google Street View, Google Maps, and Google Earth.

In other words, Hover has an executive dream team for a startup focused on imaging and 3-D.

“Hover’s building the next-generation 3-D mapping platform,” Reilley told me this morning. “We’re rendering an environment that reflects real-life behavior.”

“One of the things that’s really hard on maps is exploring,” Lu tag-teams. “Street View is not so satisfying … it’s amazing technology but it’s not the way people think. 2-D maps with search is very good when you know what you want … but when you’re trying to figure out what is out there to explore … that’s a tougher thing.”

Typically, creating 3-D imagery is a demanding process that requires significant technology and control of variables. Your software needs to know exactly where each image was taken, what lens was used, the angle the camera was at, and all the details of photography like f-stops that SLR buffs know and the rest of us don’t.

The magic of Hover’s technology is that none of that matters anymore.

“We can generate these 3-D models using arbitrary images,” Lu says. “We do a visual mapping of common features from video, handheld images, overhead images from aircraft or drones … and build a 3-D structured model in real-time.”

The first versions of the software ran on a laptop so U.S special forces could use it in the field: shoot pictures with drones, mix in satellite imagery, and add a few shots on the fly, and then build a 3-D space from that raw visual material in which they could check sight angles, pinpoint likely spots where snipers might be emplaced, and generally get the lay of the land before actually setting foot in the target zone.

With the $3.1 million in funding from Almaz Capital, de Anda Capital, McKenna Management, and a few angels, Hover is taking the technology to the cloud … and your iPhone or Android smartphone.

The goal is not to compete with Google or Apple or Bing. The goal is to sell advanced 3-D mapping capabilities to organizations that already use 2-D photography extensively.

“We’re going to take this technology that’s been deployed for situational awareness for our special forces and provide it for other industries: the Department of Defense, law enforcement agencies, infrastructure companies, utilities, and oil & gas companies,” Reilley told me today.

And the crowdsourced part?

“We won’t hoover up images from Flickr,” Lu said. “But in our app, we will allow users to update the images themselves.”

“What’s the first things consumer do in Google Maps, Google Earth, or any other satellite images?” Reilley asked, now tag-teaming Lu. “They go look at their own houses.”

So Hover plans to capitalize on that by having consumers — as well as corporate clients — add photography in select regions to its overall database. And that photography will then be available for everyone to see in the company’s mobile app — and online in web browser.

Hover is based in Los Altos, Calif.

photo credit: EraPhernalia Vintage . . . (playin’ hook-y ;o) via photopin cc


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