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Internet Maps Get Streetwise

Start-up earthmine inc challenges Google and Microsoft with new maps that provide 360-degree panoramic views of city streets



Courtesy of earthmine

Google took Internet maps to the streets when it launched itsStreet View feature in Google Maps. Rather than relying on satellite photos, Street View, which debuted in May, enables users to view and navigate 360-degree street-level digital images of 21 U.S. cities, including San Francisco, Denver, Las Vegas, Miami and the Big Apple.

Now a Berkeley, Calif., start-up called earthmine inc plans to offer a similar Web-based navigation service that employs technology that NASA uses on the Mars Exploration Rover missions to help guide Opportunity and Spirit on their treks across the Red Planet's craggy surface. Earthmine last month announced that it had cut an exclusive deal with the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, Calif., and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) that it runs for NASA to license software and algorithms that create 3-D data from stereo panoramic imagery.

JPL actually began developing these algorithms and software for autonomous navigation about a decade ago. "The technology can be used by any robots that need to take visual information about a physical environment and make navigation decisions based on that information," says Andrew Gray, deputy manager of JPL's Commercial Technology Program office.

Earthmine is using this Space Age technology for the more down-to-Earth purpose of creating maps designed to help travelers find their way in unfamiliar urban settings, government agencies create visual property catalogues for tax-assessment and other purposes, and real estate agents provide prospective buyers with true-to-life images of properties and neighborhoods.

"Our mission at earthmine is to index reality," says John Ristevski, who co-founded the company with Anthony Fassero in 2006. Fassero adds: "We get down to a level of detail so it looks like you're standing on the street." The two men met at the University of California, Berkeley; Fassero, an architecture grad student, was wrapping up a thesis on digital panoramic photography and Ristevski was conducting research for a PhD in applied laser scanning technology. They figured out that if they combined panoramic photos with geospatial data, they could capture and deliver photo-realistic 3-D environments that would accurately document the world.

Earthmine chose San Fransisco—a major city right in their backyard—as their test bed, prowling the hilly streets in an SUV equipped with an array of cameras and collecting stereo photographs at various locations along the city's 2,100 linear miles of road, including Front Street in the financial district and Union Square downtown. These photographs were combined to create three-dimensional, panoramic images. Using JPL's stereo-imaging technology, the data was then processed into three-dimensional coordinates for each pixel in the panoramic image. Each pixel used to create these 3-D images contains a data set of latitude, longitude and elevation information. The result is a series of seamlessly sewn panoramic images that offer a 360-degree view from any Web browser that supports Flash.

Fassero and Ristevski covered San Francisco in about three weeks and took another three weeks to create their maps. The goal is to expand this service to other major U.S. cities, build up a fleet of camera-equipped vehicles and eventually deliver their street-level maps to mobile phone users.

Among other things, Fassero and Ristevski view their service as something that local governments could use to create digital catalogues for property tax assessments. "If they have property information that has a latitude and longitude, they can build a map in their systems," Ristevski says. "Earthmine lets them visualize what to this point has simply been data points." Utility companies might also use these maps to accurately guide service representatives to work sites.

Earthmine faces tough competition for its service as it hits the streets some eight months after Google, whose method of data collection is similar to that of earthmine. Google uses a Calgary, Alberta–based company, Immersive Media Corp., to drive its vans throughout its target cities collecting images. Microsoft also offers its own version with Street-Side, part of its Live Search Maps site, which covers portions of San Francisco and Seattle.

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