How New Technology Could Create a 3D Map of the World

Maps with real-world benefits

Key Takeaways

  • Niantic, the maker of Pokémon Go, recently bought Scaniverse, a company that makes 3D mapping software.
  • The acquisition is a sign of the growing field of 3D mapping, which could benefit everything from virtual reality to disaster planning.
  • Niantic says it will use the software as part of its effort to build a "real-world metaverse."
3D drone satellite view of Boston downtown district and bay area

Vonkara1 / Getty Images

The growing field of three-dimensional mapping could change the way we view the world.

Pokémon Go developer Niantic Labs recently acquired Scaniverse, a company that makes 3D mapping software. It’s a sign the developer is ramping up plans to develop a 3D map of the globe. Such maps could have far-ranging benefits, experts say. 

"Three-dimensional maps bring huge benefits for daily activities," Linh Truong-Hong, a researcher at the Delft University of Technology who studies 3D mapping, told Lifewire in an email interview. "It can be used for everything from navigation to the management and planning of buildings, infrastructures, and green areas."

Going 3D

Scaniverse’s software is intended to offer a fast and easy way to capture, edit, and share 3D content using a smartphone camera. 

Niantic said in a news release that it would use the software as part of its efforts to build a "real-world metaverse." Working together with players, the company has crowdsourced an image library of spots around the globe, including the Gandhi sculpture in San Francisco and the Maneki-Neko shrine in the Gotokuji Temple in Tokyo.

The purchase of Scaniverse isn’t the only recent move Niantic has made to snap up 3D mapping companies. In March 2020, the developer announced the acquisition of spatial mapping company 6D.ai. 

"Together, we’re building a dynamic, 3D map of the world so we can enable new kinds of planet-scale AR experiences," the company said at the time in a news release. “This means we're even closer to an AR platform that will unlock the ability for any developer to make content for current and future AR hardware."

"A big advantage of semantic 3D maps is the searchability so that you could request to only show buildings taller than 15m within a certain area."

The move to 3D mapping is part of an arms race among developers for ever greater realism in applications ranging from gaming to virtual reality. Epic Games recently purchased Capturing Reality, which makes software that allows you to take photos or laser scans of an object or place and process those photos into a 3D shape. 

“3D mapping can transport users to places that are too far away or too expensive to visit or are currently non-existent,” Lynn Puzzo, a marketing manager for Mosaic, a company that makes cameras for mapping companies, told Lifewire in an email interview. “They offer a means for developers and designers to better visualize their products and processes in an efficient manner.”

Putting Data in Images

Other approaches take a bird’s eye view of 3D mapping. For example, Blackshark.ai is building maps using algorithms to automatically extract information from satellite imagery. The result is what’s called semantic mapping, which embeds data within the maps. 

“Other 3D mapping software may look realistic from the right distance, but the map can’t be queried up or searched by computer programs or algorithms,” Blackshark.ai CEO Michael Putz told Lifewire in an email interview. “A big advantage of semantic 3D maps is the searchability, so that you could request to only show buildings taller than 15m within a certain area.”

3D drone satellite view of Boston park and industrial district

Vonkara1 / Getty Images

Putz said 3D digital maps would allow better decision-making across urban planning, insurance, and disaster relief industries. 

“With semantic capabilities, users can better plan where to invest in infrastructure, calculate insurance policies faster by understanding the dimensions of certain buildings, or even simulate natural disasters such as floods to visualize affected areas,” he added. 

The field of 3D mapping isn’t new. Well-known 3D maps include Google Earth and Bing Maps 3D, and are usually made with photogrammetry, which stitches together a 3D model based on several photos from different angles.

"It can be used for everything from navigation to the management and planning of buildings, infrastructures, and green areas."

But a growing number of companies are trying to capture 3D maps to make them more widely available and at smaller scales. Such three-dimensional maps also could be used in VR and AR projects, Putz said. 

The enhanced images “could show relevant mixed-reality content and as semantic 3D maps “know” what the user is looking at in the real world; you can then display the most useful information in an exact 3D spatial context.”

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