Google Maps, or Bing, and other prominent mapping services out there give you 3D views that look like they were adapted from aerial photographs. Maps from C3 Technologies look like the aerial photograph itself. The quality is so crisp, and the visual bugs so few, that it's amazing to just watch someone browse through the map. It's like there's a miniature version of the Earth that you can explore in the palm of your hand. In the following video taken at CES 2011, C3's Ludwig Emgard gives you a quick tour of their 3D maps. Whether on a mobile device or a desktop, these examples simply look magnificent.
Like many other 3D mapping companies, C3 builds their models by stitching together thousands of aerial photographs. The difference is that C3 uses extremely well calibrated cameras tied into a high precision navigation system. This allows them to create 3D maps that look as crisp as the original photos they are based on, even as you zoom and rotate. Their website has several example cities you can explore after downloading a plugin. Trust me, it's well worth the effort. I can't get enough of these maps. Here's a demo video of the map of Oslo. Absolutely awesome.
While C3 looks to be expanding its range of available cities, there are only about 100 available at the moment including London, Barcelona, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Oslo, Boston, Miami and San Francisco. Twenty-two more locations will be released this spring. That's great if you're in a major metropolitan area in the US or Europe, but far from the coverage of Google, Bing, or others.
As well as increasing its geographic range, C3 is expanding into interior settings. With a special camera rig, they can also create a 3D model of the interior of a building using the same photo stitching they use with their aerial or street level maps. Businesses have to request C3 to come in and create such an inside map of their facilities, so don't expect these 3D indoor maps to become ubiquitous anytime soon. Still, the technology is ready and available, so we're bound to see at least a few examples in the months ahead.
C3's SDK can be seen as a rush to get third party developers to put their 3D views onto as many digital screens as possible. As Emgard explains in the first video, the applications for social mapping are clear. With a high-quality three dimensional map you can show friends exactly where you want to meet - you could tag a tree or lamp-post with no problem! I'm sure we'll also see virtual tour apps - guides so clear that you can't possibly get lost. Considering the buzz around C3 at CES, I'm sure that they'll be delivering many copies of their SDK in the near future. But why the rush?
What C3 has accomplished is very likely to be copied, and soon. Yes, the aerial photography technology they use is pretty advanced. Yet I'm sure Google has something equally sophisticated being developed behind closed doors. They love to surprise us with stuff like that. We should expect amazingly high quality 3D maps to become a staple of mapping services in the years ahead. Interior exploration, too, could be accomplished by other firms fairly easily. There are backpack-based 3D camera systems for hire on the market right now. At some point we'll be able to make these ourselves with retail-level devices. Imagine the user-uploaded photos on Google Maps but with an interactive 3D perspective. That's just part of the map-happy future you'll be able to enjoy.
As I've discussed before, maps have become one of the most prominent portals for information in our modern age. Restaurants, shops, housing - we search for these through interactive maps and we find things more quickly. Not only that, but we are fed information far beyond the 'where' of our inquiry. At the same time as you learn how to locate a new restaurant, you can see quality ratings right on the map, or an image of its storefront. (In the future, you may be able to see inside of it as well, maybe in realtime.) This linking of digital data to the physical world is a powerful tool, and with it maps have become one of the most used features on the internet. The detail of C3 maps and their range of scale (from interior to city-wide views) is just one of the many ways that maps are going to blow your mind in the years ahead. Get ready.
[image credits: C3 Technologies]