Los Altos, California-based Hover was initially aimed at fulfilling the defense market’s need for quickly updatable 3-D terrain maps that could be created with nonclassified images, says chief technology officer Ed Lu, a former astronaut who previously worked as the head of Google’s advanced projects group, which oversaw Google Maps, Google Earth, and Google Street View.
Lu says Hover’s technology can take images from various sources—satellite pictures or images taken by cameras mounted on soldiers’ helmets, for example—and process them to produce 3-D models of buildings that can be updated further if more images are added later. For example, if you used your phone to take a photograph of a building from the sidewalk, it could be used to improve the model’s accuracy.
Lu thinks the ability to put street-level images on a map that people can generate on their own will set Hover apart from Google and Apple.
The company currently sells its technology to military customers, and is working on a product for consumers that it hopes to have available as a public beta—likely in the form of a smart-phone app—near the end of the year. “Being able to quickly hover down the street, to use the term, to see what it looks like around the corner, is something people would do if they had an intuitive, fast way of doing it,” says Hover CEO A.J. Altman.
But no matter how compelling the technology, finding (and keeping) a big enough audience for your app is difficult. Despite the proliferation of third-party apps, most still don’t make that much money: Distimo, a market research company in the Netherlands, estimated in May that the average app in Apple’s App Store brings in only $20 a day, or about $7,300 a year.
And it could be even harder for mapping apps. As Ben Bajarin, a principal analyst at Creative Strategies, notes, maps have long been a part of smart phones, and consumers tend to just use whatever comes preloaded on their handset. “Even though there’s innovation, it’s hard to get above the noise,” he says.
One company that has been fairly successful at doing this is Waze, an app that offers navigation and crowdsourced traffic data. The Palo Alto, California-based company is also reportedly contributing data to Apple’s Maps, though the company declined to comment on the issue.
Since launching globally in late 2009, Waze has grown to 18.5 million users, most of whom open it up on their iPhones or Android smart phones, CEO Noam Bardin says. Waze users can contribute to its maps on the Web, editing features like road junctions and allowable turns, and when you use the app, Waze automatically collects data about local traffic conditions (users can also self-report hazards like traffic jams, accidents, or map issues).
The company is hoping to make money through a location-based advertising platform it plans to launch in September that may show users the closest parking spots to their destinations, or ads about businesses like gas stations and coffee shops that are on the way.
This may work for Waze, but Bajarin thinks that mapping companies will have to get very specialized to prosper—perhaps by, say, rolling out a mapping app that helps people find nearby dog parks instead of one that is more broadly concentrated on local search and driving directions.
“As we get more smart devices—phones and tablets—the context around it is important, but the key thing is going to be: Can they differentiate in enough of a way that someone would choose to use them over something else?” he says.