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Sam Pfeifle


Ovi Maps: New Toy or Potential Business Application?

Virtual fly-throughs of major cities might get the mainstream thinking about 3-D data and applications

Published: Wednesday, May 4, 2011 - 09:14

The web is buzzing about Nokia’s Ovi Maps—and rightly so. The new 3-D interface the company has debuted, which allows you to take amazing 3-D fly-throughs of some of the world’s most beautiful cities, is a revelation. If you haven’t played with it yet, do so now by clicking here and wasting a significant part of your day.

I recommend starting with New York because the skyscrapers best optimize the 3-D effect. (You’re going to need to download a little Ovi plug-in, but it only takes a couple of seconds. Just do it. Trust me. Also, make sure you notice the “Pick a City” button in the lower left-hand corner; it’s not immediately apparent.)

For those less adventurous, this is what you can see of New York:

It’s much, much cooler when you can spin it around and dive into it and run into skyscrapers by mistake. There are currently 20 cities you can check out, which are obviously the ones where Nokia has done the flyover and integrated the image information with the lidar data.

Many of the write-ups you’ll see of this—like this one from Fast Company, or this one from MIT’s Technology Review—focus on the fact that c3 Technologies supplies much of the back-end technology to make the interface happen (which must mean that they put out a better press release or something). Also, people seem to love the whole angle where c3 developed the technology for the aerospace industry, and it was supposed to guide missiles, etc., etc. I think it’s overstating things to go with the whole swords-to-plowshares meme here. If we started counting up how many consumer applications started out as military applications, we’d have a pretty long list.

The real question is how Nokia is actually going to make any money off this 3-D interface. At the moment it’s a shiny toy and a great time waster, but it’s unclear where the revenue is going to come from.

Here’s Nokia’s Michael Halbherr from Ovi product development talking about Ovi’s direction right before his keynote speech at the Where 2.0 conference (which I’m really feeling like I should have been at):

Much of what he’s talking about is the 2-D—the rich mapping APIs that Ovi will be offering, the routing stuff, and the advanced search functions. All of which basically follow the Google model. Is Ovi really going to do it so much better that it will be able to overcome Google’s branding and interface with its ubiquitous search engine? Show me all the market studies you want, but I’ll tell you right now that Bing brought exactly 1.2 percent of the search traffic last month to SPARpointGroup.com. Yahoo beat Bing handily.

Also, note that Halbherr more than once refers to the 3-D interface as “eye candy” and “really cool.” I totally agree. But that’s not exactly code for “huge revenue driver.”

Maybe the most interesting thing he says involves his reference to how Navteq’s “industrial capture process” is being dovetailed with user additions. How is that going to work? How do they mesh survey-grade laser scan data with the photos from my iPhone? It makes the head spin.

But I do have to admit the interface is addictive. I can’t stop showing it to people here in the office, and I’ve been surfing the streets of New York like Spiderman for the last half-hour. Seems like there’s a model here for advertising à la Hulu and other streaming video sites, where an ad might occupy a corner of the screen for 30 seconds at a time. But there’s so much competition for advertising dollars….

There’s also the fact that as you get more specific in your detail, you need to refresh the maps all that more often for the user experience to be genuine. Look at the billboards in New York’s Times Square: How long will Mary Poppins be playing? Dawn of the Dead 2?

Although I have to admit that one of the coolest things about the 3-Dness of this is how the sun plays into the images. Check out the difference here between one side of Helsinki’s Suomenlinna area

and the other.

It almost makes it feel live, and it definitely makes it feel like more than just a computer simulation.

Back to potential applications, though. Because Halbherr is talking about full APIs for just about any platform, mobile or desktop, it would seem that you could back this interface into just about anything.

Off the top of my head, here are some revenue-generating applications (assuming that maybe the top 500 cities will eventually be mapped) other than selling ads for people to see when wasting time:

Sell it to the online travel sites so that when they show you a hotel, they also can show you the walking route to the major tourist attractions. Sure, you can show me an overhead map, or the Google map where I have to click the little arrow, but this is way cooler, and you could do preprogrammed animations where I don’t actually have to do anything. Then the hotels pay to have this service linked to their sites. If you don’t pay, you don’t get the cool animation. What’s the chance of that actually being sellable? 30 percent?

Sell it to colleges and universities so they can set up virtual tours of their campus and the surrounding area to entice potential students. As in, “Click here to walk the campus.” Could be either preprogrammed or just embedded, and the kids fly through. And the chance of that actually being sellable? 20 percent?

Sell it as an education app that can be downloaded to tablets to teach kids world geography, say for $4.99 a download. And the chances of that actually being sellable? Well, some well-meaning parents would buy.

Anyway, you get the idea. Wild, wild West kind of stuff here. Maybe most important, though, here’s another application that gets the mainstream thinking in terms of real-world 3-D data and applications. That can only be good for those of you armed with data-capture devices and a business plan.


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Sam Pfeifle