EveryScape: Street-Level Views That Go Behind Closed Doors

10/29/07Follow @wroush

The race is on to create an immersive, photorealistic online model of the real world. Such an environment could ultimately serve not just as navigation tool or a kind of 3-D yellow pages, but as a canvas for an endless variety of advertising, business intelligence, scientific and environmental data, and user-generated content such as photographs, podcasts, and reviews. But the big, obvious contestants who are pouring scores of programmers and millions of dollars into that race—Google and Microsoft—may suddenly find they’ve been overtaken by a small Waltham, MA-based company, EveryScape, which today launched a service it calls “the real world online.”

In the four cities covered so far—Boston, New York, Miami, and Aspen—EveryScape allows users to pick any location on a street map and explore a 360-degree, panoramic photograph taken at that spot. Locations of interest are marked in the photographs by clickable signpost icons that bring up boxes with additional information. Bright-orange arrow icons indicate that additional views are available in the directions of the arrows—typically, up and down a street. When the user clicks one of these arrows, a proprietary algorithm identifies buildings and other shapes in the photographs as 3-D objects and creates a brief, 3-D animation, moving the camera more or less smoothly from the current location to the next. In two of the pilot cities, Miami and Aspen, the user can even steer the camera inside buildings or across the grounds of large resort properties.

The animation algorithm is a clever trick that produces the impression that EveryScape’s world is three-dimensional and fully navigable, in the mode of virtual worlds like Second Life. In fact, EveryScape’s database is just a collection of still images captured by drivers who criss-crossed their cities carrying car-mounted digital cameras with spherical lenses.

“The whole point of EveryScape is to try to bridge the gap between just taking photos and building a global-scale, highly detailed 3-D model of the environment, which is a decade away or more,” says Mok Oh, the company’s founder and chief technology officer. “We really feel like this solution makes sense.”

The idea of stitching together street views into a walkable, street-level city atlas isn’t new. The first illustrated directories of city streets were actually created more than a century ago; the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, for example, includes a remarkable illustrated guide to the streets of San Francisco, circa 1895. A more modern example, and one that at first glance bears a strong resemblance to EveryScape, is Google Maps’ Street View feature, which allows users to pan and zoom around 360-degree photographs taken from locations along the streets of 15 U.S. cities. Microsoft is also in on the game, offering a preview of a street-view feature that puts the viewer in the seat of a mock racecar or sports car.

But EveryScape’s service leapfrogs the other companies’ work in several ways. For one thing, EveryScape’s views are much brighter and sharper than Google’s. That’s because they’re based on high-resolution photographs taken using digital SLRs, whereas Google’s street views are captured by video cameras, which can’t record as many pixels. EveryScape’s animations create a sense of real movement between locations, while Google simply fades from one image to the next. And in a few places in Miami and Aspen, EveryScape’s driver-photographers became pedestrians, entering buildings such as the Arts Center of South Florida. For these spots, the street maps in EveryScape map panel are supplanted by detailed floor plans, and the user can enter specific rooms. (In one room in the Arts Center, you can peer over the shoulder of a pony-tailed artist working on a painting. Check out a YouTube video on the whole technology here.)

An Interior View from EveryScapeMany more “explorable” buildings are coming, according to Everyscape CEO Jim Schoonmaker. In fact, interior views are at the core of EveryScape’s business model. The company sells these views to retailers and property owners as, in effect, giant walk-through advertisements. The Bentley Hotel on Ocean Drive in Miami, for example, commissioned EveryScape to create images throughout the hotel and grounds, including three actual suites. The photos give potential guests the chance to make a “virtual visit” to the hotel before reserving a room. (For these interiors, EveryScape goes to extra lengths to make the 3-D transitions look convincing. I’m an old virtual-worlds hand, and I was surprised by how effectively the technique creates a sense of immersion, even though the panoramic photos themselves are static.)

EveryScape’s team in Waltham is working hard to sell interior views of more properties and to bring more cities online. “Much of what we’ve learned about building the world online has been learned from how the real world was built,” says Schoonmaker. “Phase One of our world-building process is what we call paving the roads—just creating the basic street views. Right now, it’s primarily the public spaces that are available for viewing in Boston and New York. But once the road is paved, businesses and people start showing up. So Phase Two will be attaching content from businesses.”

But Schoonmaker and Oh are smart enough to realize that they can’t build an entire world on their own. So EveryScape—a private company with Series A backing of “less than $10 million” (the company says) from Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Draper Fisher Jurvetson New England, Draper Atlantic, and Launchpad Venture Group—is also inviting ordinary users to contribute to the site as “Scape Artists,” uploading their own photographs and annotating specific locations with information, reviews, and links to existing Web pages. The company is recruiting several levels of Scape Artists; those with the necessary equipment will be paid to drive around their own cities and help “pave the roads,” to use Schoonmaker’s phrase.

“We think of this as a canvas,” says Schoonmaker. “The photographic content in itself is very powerful and useful, but it becomes exponentially more powerful when you use it as a context for information that’s already on the Internet. It’s a universal platform for embedding information about real-world places.”

EveryScape went live this morning at www.everyscape.com. I can’t direct you to an Everyscape panorama of Xconomy’s address at 10 Rogers Street, Cambridge, since EveryScape’s Boston-area photographers haven’t yet crossed the Charles River. But I expect to see one of their cars tooling down our street soon. Maybe we’ll even invite them inside for tea.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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