Everyscape, a startup based in Waltham, MA, is getting in on the rush to create a virtual version of the real world. Although the site will launch this fall under the shadow of mapping giant Google Earth, Everyscape’s cofounders say that users will find the company’s look and feel quite different. “We’re working on a human experience,” CEO Jim Schoonmaker says. “Google has built a superhuman experience.”
Everyscape’s demo opens in the middle of San Francisco’s Union Square, below the Dewey Monument. Users can choose the auto-drive mode, which gives a virtual tour of the area’s sights and shops, or they can explore on their own. Auto drive orients a user by showing her the general layout of Union Square before taking her into Harry Dentin’s Starlight Lounge and bringing her out again for a dizzy, swirling look at the night sky above the Dewey Monument.
The site is designed to give a full immersive experience. A user should be able to tour Union Square virtually, Schoonmaker says, and then feel comfortable navigating it in real life.
Google Earth, in contrast, opens with a satellite’s view of the earth resting in space. From there, users can fly down to explore chosen terrain or look out at the stars. While many areas are created with flat satellite photos, some locations include links to street-level photos taken by users. Images showing a 3-D view of certain buildings can also be layered onto the map, using a special programming language called KML.
In Everyscape, building interiors are constructed the same way as the rest of the environment: by stitching together a series of panoramic photographs taken by company photographers or contributed by users. Within each photograph, a user can swivel through a full sphere of motion. To move users from within one panoramic photograph to the next, Everyscape’s servers estimate the locations of the cameras in each photograph and use that information to build sparse 3-D geometry that forms the building blocks for an animated 3-D transition. Everyscape CTO and founder Mok Oh says that the transition works because it simulates people’s real-life attitude toward moving from place to place. “Getting there is not what you want,” he says. “Being there is what you want.”
Derek Hoiem, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who designed the technology behind the 3-D site Fotowoosh, says that 3-D immersive sites are popular now because of their appeal to users. “When you’re able to control the environment, it feels more lifelike,” he notes. While Hoiem says that Everyscape’s technology gives a good approximation of motion, he also says that he would like to see greater freedom of movement, rather than just swiveling and transitioning.