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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Apple Charts a Course for 3-D Maps

It seems abundantly clear that Apple, which recently snapped up its third mapping company, is planning a rival to Google Maps for its iOS devices.

  • November 3, 2011

One of the apps I use most on my iPhone—indeed, perhaps the app I use the most—is a product dependent on technology from Apple’s rival, Google. It’s the Maps app, and as a person lacking any innate sense of direction, I use it just about wherever I go. Ever since the iPhone first came on the scene in 2007, Apple has been dependent on Google Maps. But there have been hints that Apple, at least since 2009, has been planning a rival service. In that year, it bought a mapping company called Placebase; last year, it scooped up a 3-D mapping company called Poly9. This week, 9to5Mac confirms that Apple has now purchased a third mapping company, C3 Technologies, which mysteriously shut down in August following its acquisition from a then-unnamed buyer.

Technology Review profiled C3 back in April; the Swedish company has adapted missile-targeting tech into what some have called “Google Maps on steroids.” Have a look for yourself, with this map of Oslo, Norway:

And here’s another, rather dazzling, video of the Hoover Dam:

Tom Simonite neatly summarized the tech back in April:

C3’s models are generated with little human intervention. First, a plane equipped with a custom-designed package of professional-grade digital single-lens reflex cameras takes aerial photos. Four cameras look out along the main compass points, at oblique angles to the ground, to image buildings from the side as well as above. Additional cameras (the exact number is secret) capture overlapping images from their own carefully determined angles, producing a final set that contains all the information needed for a full 3-D rendering of a city’s buildings. Machine-vision software developed by C3 compares pairs of overlapping images to gauge depth, just as our brains use stereo vision, to produce a richly detailed 3-D model.

Saab, which used to own C3, gives an illustration of the tech in action in this video:

Given that the company in Cupertino are now the owners of this impressive tech, what can we expect a future of iOS Maps to possibly look like? First of all, don’t expect to see the transition away from Google Maps to happen immediately: Apple recently renewed that deal with Google, so it’s not as thought Apple’s own mapping service will be revamped in time for iOS 5.

But when Apple finally does institute its own mapping service, a few bets are safe. First, that the name “Google” won’t have much to do with it, and that the company on which Steve Jobs vowed “thermonuclear war” will be out of the picture, as far as iOS devices’ mapping apps are concerned. Second, and fairly obviously, Apple’s mapping service will likely plan to outdo Google by incorporating 3-D tech—C3’s, for sure, but also Poly9’s. We can also expect to see some innovation in crowd-sourced traffic data: As Apple announced back in late April, “Apple is now collecting anonymous traffic data to build a crowd-sourced traffic database with the goal of providing iPhone users an improved traffic service in the next couple of years.”

When can we hope to see all this? Of course, Apple isn’t talking. But SearchEngineLand ventures to say that “in the next 12 months (or so),” we might start seeing Apple swap out some of Google’s tech for its own.

In the meantime, ogle another one of the many other deluxe C3 videos on YouTube.

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