You've probably tried the “Street View” feature in Google Maps, the one in which you can actually view 3D panoramas from the street level of several cities including San Francisco, Las Vegas, Denver, Houston, and New York. Earthmine is working to bring that concept of visually mapping the real world to a deeper level by improving the quality of virtualization and by enabling the indexation of objects found in landscapes.
Imagine for a second that you could notify your friends of something cool or noteworthy that you see when out on the town by simply pulling out your cellphone, bringing up a panorama of your location, and tagging something (a store, a parking spot, an historic landmark) with a note that is automatically shared with your friends. Then imagine you're a restaurant owner who wants to entice potential customers by tagging the outside of your diner within a 3D panorama with menu information and digital coupons. None of this is possible yet, but Earthmine will provide the technology that could very well make it all a reality.
Like Google, Earthmine collects its data by driving vehicles equipped with special cameras around urban areas. Earthmine co-founder John Ristevski says that the company's custom camera “uses a stereoscopic system with extremely wide angle lenses to capture full spherical images of the urban environment.” Webware has a good photo of one of these babies strapped to the top of a Pathfinder (it can also be seen at the beginning of the video embedded below).
Ristevski says that, unlike Google, Earthmine uses a data calibration process that preserves the camera input as an unfiltered data set, which contains a higher level of detail because scenes are stored in “pixel for pixel array[s] of ‘depth' points.” The result: Earthmine panoramas look better. But they are also more useful, because more detail = better indexable data. The company is called “Earthmine” not because it wants to make Google Street View prettier, but because it wants to the “mine” the Earth's data.
What this all means is that Earthmine's system can keep track of the objects found in the real world and attribute information to each of them (a process known as “asset mapping”). The latitude, longitude, elevation, and other attributes of garbage cans, telephone posts, manholes, and trees can be recorded and tracked in a pseudo-3D virtualization system. The information can be exploited within Earthmine's software or exported to GIS or CAD systems. Alternatively, the information stored in preexisting Geographic Information Systems (GIS) can be brought into Earthmine.
Not interested in using computers to identify and tag all of the objects you could just point out on the street? That's okay, because Earthmine isn't necessarily focusing on you, the casual consumer. The company has its sights set on bigger customers, like the government and enterprises (which is a little scary if you are a Big Brother conspiracy theorist).
That said, Earthmine is working to make mapping technology more accessible and efficient. Ristevski claims that cities the size of San Francisco can be mapped in less than 30 days. Once Earthmine takes care of the mapping, it plans to license out its 3D inventory to customers such as city governments, branches of the national government, PG&E, big insurance companies, transportation companies, and even other technology companies like RedFin or Zillow. Earthmine hopes to make its software easy to use and affordable enough for a wide-range of consumers who are not necessarily all that technically literate. Ristevski draws parallels between what Earthmine is doing for real world mapping and what Sketchup did for 3D modeling.
Earthmine presented at DEMO this fall but has not released its product yet. The company is based in Berkeley, California and has so far operated on $1M of seed money.
Check out our coverage of other companies who are innovating with 3D technology: Photosynth, Everyscape, and Fotowoosh are developing technologies that convert 2D photographs into 3D models; Microsoft has developed advanced 3D modeling on top of its Live Search Maps product, and has also implemented Photosynth technology; and VisualSize is developing a system for accurately measuring the dimensions within 2D photos.
The following is a demonstration video for Earthmine: