From Static To Suggestive: Nokia’s Earthmine Powered Vision For The Future Of Maps


okia is preparing to become a very different animal. The company whose name is still synonymous with mobile phones in certain parts of the world will — barring a last-minute bout of nerves from the company board —  hand off its devices & services unit to Microsoft early next year in exchange for $7.2 billion. Which means that in 2014 Nokia is going to have both the time and the money to refocus its efforts elsewhere — and one key area for the future of the company, indeed one of only three remaining business units at Nokia, is maps & location services, under its HERE brand.

No surprise, then, that Nokia is revving up its engines in the location space. Notably, it’s fully integrated the digital mapping giant Navteq — which it acquired way back in 2007, but was running as an independent business up until last year.

On its earnings conference call last month it also talked up the prospects for HERE to compete with Google Maps, and win new business in consumer facing use-cases such as on mobile devices. It’s also revving HERE’s engines literally, with a plan to triple the number of cars it has wearing down rubber mapping new roads and places, and doing the ongoing map maintenance required to keep the data fresh.

Nokia’s HERE business sub-divides into three main divisions — its consumer-facing offering (of which Microsoft is among its top three customers); a b2b/enterprise play, where it works with customers such as Oracle, by, for instance, helping them track their flow of goods to better understand their own businesses; and a very big automotive business, built upon its Navteq acquisition and its turn-by-turn navigation specialism.

The automotive segment is currently the largest of HERE’s divisions — as you’d expect, given how much Nokia spent on buying its way into the market when it purchased Navteq, for $8.1 billion. Globally, four out of five cars with dashboard navigation are using Nokia’s maps. (“Basically every major car company is working with us, at some level,” it says.)

Across all HERE’s division, Nokia’s maps licensing and location data platform business has “hundreds” of customers.

From static to suggestive

This week Nokia was showing off one of its new-look HERE cars, pictured above, to U.K. journalists, giving live demos of the street-level mapping technology. The flagship tech on show here is the 3D mapping technology it acquired from Earthmine this time last year. Nokia is using this to compete with Google Street View in urban areas but also, more broadly, as the foundation for evolving HERE beyond the legacy Navteq specialism of turn-by-turn navigation.

Building more dynamic and interactive 3D maps is where Nokia sees the future for HERE, says Stuart Ryan, director of Maps and Everyday Mobility at Nokia. A smart, personalised, context-aware location cloud platform may also represent the future for Nokia’s business, post-mobile phones.

It’s about trying to reinvent and redefine the whole concept of what it is to see and visualise and interact with a map.

What kind of maps is it aiming to build? “Immersive, living, rich” maps that draw on multiple content sources and applications and change based on context, or display data in new and playful ways, says Ryan. Maps that also “know and understand you, and suggest things for you”.

“Maps behave, react, inform in a way that’s very, very relevant and personal to you,” he tells TechCrunch. “The challenge our boss gives us is redesign the maps experience for consumers.”

One example he brings up to illustrate Nokia’s thinking here is map of a city that’s transformed from being a realistic digital representation into an abstracted data visualisation that emphasises certain characteristics of the city’s makeup, and/or creates something that looks visually arresting, and is even purposefully un-map-like.

Another scenario he talks about is when visitors to a city want to know where local equivalents for places in their home town can be found — so, in other words, they’re after a map that can show them where “the uptown version of Chicago in Berlin is”, for example.

“It’s got to go from being a very largely static experience, granted built on turn-by-turn navigation, into a much more interactive and suggestive type of experience,” he says. “That’s where it’s going.”

Nokia’s Earthmine vs Google Street View

It was too dark in London’s low-light winter environs to take the HERE car for a spin when TechCrunch checked it out, but the driver showed the system working in the garage. Nokia’s Ryan was also on hand to answer questions.

Nokia’s HERE fleet is not doing all the mapping itself. The company has multiple sources for its maps, and even obtains some mapping data via community (crowdsourcing) contributions to augment the rubber on the tarmac approach, although Ryan stressed that it has teams checking mapping data submissions to ensure their quality, where possible. It also draws in other third party sources, such as data from government agencies.

The HERE car driver showing off the kit inside the demo car had recently been mapping the North East of England, and said he’s typically out from 7:45 a.m. to 3:45 p.m.-4:45 p.m., depending on weather and light conditions. He typically covers around 200 miles a day.

The hard drive in the car — which was sited on the front seat, inside the processing unit — holds a terabyte of data. After around a week’s worth of driving 64% of it had been filled.

The HERE car’s modular rig, which is mounted on the roof, contains a LiDar sensor which captures the 3D data — grabbing objects and textures as the car moves along the road — by sending out signals that bounce back to build up a “3D point cloud”.

“This is what creates a 3D digital representation of the world around us,” says Ryan. “It’s all managed as an X, Y, Z point so we have the location and height information… It’s similar to laser and sonar, those kinds of technologies. It’s based on light pulses and then when it comes back in we just store the location. And we create a composite view, then, of the real-world in a 3D construct. ”

Here’s an example of the street level imagery being captured by Nokia’s rig:

HERE Maps Earthmine>

And while, on the surface, Nokia’s street level view may look much like Google’s Street View, Nokia argues that because its technology captures 3D data rather than just taking static photographs, it offers a superior foundation for transforming the basic digital map canvas — by allowing for both new types of content and new ways of interacting with maps to be introduced.

“A static image product has a lot of limitations in terms of the utility it provides,” says Ryan when asked how Nokia’s tech stacks up against Street View. He also says the imagery captured by Nokia’s cameras is “higher accuracy, higher resolution, higher quality” than Google’s Street View cameras, adding: “Which is part of the reason why we invested in the Earthmine technology”.

What he’s not so quick to point out is that Nokia’s street level mapping coverage is far less comprehensive than Google’s Street View — Nokia is focusing street level mapping on metropolitan and urban areas, whereas Google, with five+ years of rubber in the game already, generally prefers to cover whole countries, as the below coverage map illustrates:

Google Street View coverage map>

Google Street View coverage map, as of November 2013

So when Nokia says it has mapped close to 200 countries, it’s talking specifically about road-level mapping, not the street level 3D data. It’s unclear exactly how extensive Nokia’s street level mapping is at this point — Nokia has previously said the HERE cars will be visiting 27 countries this year — but even in Europe and North America where Nokia kicked off its 3D mapping effort coverage is selective, targeted on urban centres.

Nokia justifies that selective coverage by arguing that street level mapping is more relevant to urban areas where population density is highest — so, in the short term at least, HERE’s Earthmine technology looks set to snub the roads less well-travelled.

But if you can’t compete on quantity vs your biggest rival, there’s always quality. And/or doing something new and different.

Maps that push and pull

“Our team is looking at the utility around how do you make the map more living, more real, more relevant to people — in terms of being able to provide more detail, and make the panoramas around you and buildings around you more relevant in terms of if you think about orientation and guidance,” says Ryan.

“But also… this [Earthmine technology] will allow us to make the map in and of itself more of a canvas and an interface — so we want to get away from the legacy of put something in a search box or a text box and actually scroll the map, select objects on the map, make them reveal things to you and go from there.

“Because everything we have is actually a data model, and not a static image, that allows us to do an awful lot of these use-cases.”

Introducing new “use-cases” to its maps is on the cards for Nokia “later next year”, according to Ryan. Fleshing out those use-cases a little further he lists the following: “truer 3D rendering of what’s around you; making things much more interactive; allowing for certain things to render in certain ways — they could be very, very detailed, or they could be a little bit more occluded”.

Another feature he discusses is transitions — i.e. being able to move map users through a 3D view that takes in aerial imagery and moves down through different levels of detailed 3D content, before they arrive at street level. The aim being to wow users, with both the design and the feel of moving around the map.

He also talks about allowing users to explore cities via maps in a more tactile way using a 3D mapping canvas that lets them touch a building to see what it is, rather than having to type something into a text box or click around on rails. “You don’t click an action to route to… you just click on the building itself to route to,” he explains.

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From Static To Suggestive: Nokia’s Earthmine-Powered Vision For The Future Of Maps
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