Big Tech’s Race to the Ground (View)

Google Earth “ground-level view” from a 3D model, above, Google Street View, from a camera-based 2D image, below.

Who’s doing what?

In terms of 3D Earth models, Google Earth has been the gold standard since it launched in 2001. Over the past year, Apple has quietly built out Apple Maps with visually rich 3D models of several cities, but it only lets you zoom down to around 100 feet above the ground. Its own version of Street View, called Look Around and barely flaunted so far, surpasses Street View in terms of seamlessness and speed. Microsoft’s Azure Digital Twins is a service which allows customers to create their own digital 3D representations of real-world places, things, and people but so far with no indication of any integrated Earth model. Earlier this year, Epic Games, maker of the powerful Unreal Engine, announced a collaboration with Cesium, a 3D geospatial software company, ostensibly to make its games more real-world and photorealistic.

Facebook / Meta’s Project Aria video, simulating 3D Earth mapping with dots outside and with tags inside.
Niantic’s city-scale Visual Positioning System can place cartoon clouds and flying ships behind actual buildings.

Same old dumb (yet fixable) challenges

How we make and use 3D Earth models is shaping up to have analogous challenges to those with social media and search engines, but with significantly different spins. Perhaps we can get a leg up on confronting and addressing these challenges early on, and perhaps it will help inform these analogous challenges.

One solution worth considering? Lens caps.

Lens caps, or some equally physical gesture, physically visible and possibly electro-mechanically controlled. The first big tech company to incorporate something like this will win the kudos of the world.

Snapchat’s AR collaboration with Jeff Koons in NY Central Park tagged by graffiti artist Sebastian Errazuriz.

Bold new game-changing possibilities

Predictably, the race for ground-level views appears to be driven by mobile applications now, like for street directions, and by wearable AR headsets in the future, like for games and information. The possibilities discussed next are less predictable and intended to be more provocative, possibly with very high impact and nicely surprising outcomes.

Optical AR headset (Magic Leap) and pass-through AR headset (Varjo)
Michael Naimark, May 2014.
AR-like VR kiosk showing a historical re-enactment, by Timescope, Paris.

With a good ground-level 3D Earth model, all AR can be experienced as VR, anywhere.

Take Pokémon Go. Onsite participants currently play using mobile AR on their smartphones, which at some point will be replaced with an AR headset. Other participants can play remotely with their VR headset. Given an accurate, matching 3D Earth model, everything that onsite participants see, home participants see too, and can interact as well. They may even appear as avatars to onsite participants as well.

Billions of Dollars at Stake

VR and AR haven’t gone exactly on-plan so far, and it borders on amusing how many fundamental questions remain unanswered and are the source of confusion and internal disputes. Is less-than-360 degree imagery sometimes adequate? Will people want to wear future AR/VR headsets all of their waking hours? Is a small tethered box to a headset which provides more power worth the affordance? Has the covid pandemic changed the playing field?

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Michael Naimark

Michael Naimark

Michael Naimark has worked in immersive and interactive media for over four decades.