Mapping's Future Looks Like Gaming's Past

I have a new job, and it’s keeping me pretty busy. Don’t get too excited—you’re the goober that signed up for this newsletter, and I will not let you off the hook that easily. The newsletter just might come in a little less frequently for a while. Consider it a reprieve.

Video games were a huge part of my childhood. I grew up during the golden age of console gaming.¹ In elementary school, the first Spider-Man game I played on Playstation looked like this:

By the time I was graduating from college it looked like this:

My favorite games have always been open world adventures. I love the feelings of creativity and serendipity they illicit. And they all share one core feature in common germane to this newsletter: a map.

Gamers Invented Modern Web Maps

Web mapping nerd-historians often cite Keyhole as an important company in the history of web mapping.

It’s a story as old as time: a bunch of software engineers tried to make a video game, failed, and then accidentally revolutionized a boring industry while simply trying to salvage their game’s technological carcass.²

In Keyhole’s case, they originally tried to build a gaming engine under the moniker “Intrinsic Graphics.” When that idea fell apart, they couldn’t find a buyer, so they spun out a new company to focus just on the mapping component of their platform, Keyhole.

In-Q-Tel stepped in to finance the spinout (technically, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, NGA’s predecessor, funded them through IQT). IQT is the non-profit venture capital firm that serves the intelligence community.

About a year after getting involved with IQT, Keyhole was acquired by Google and became the foundation for Google Earth. The acquisition turned out pretty well, I think. They spent a few million bucks, put John Hanke in charge of maps, and built a multi-billion dollar line of business and household name.

Hanke is a genius of the highest order—he now runs Niantic, makers of Pokemon Go, the most popular augmented reality game of all time. So he wound up with his video game startup after all.

It’s interesting to speculate about how today’s video games might affect the future of web mapping the way Intrinsic Graphics affected the last couple of decades.

My hunch is that there’s as much to learn from the plumbing as there is to learn from the window dressing. Cyberpunk 2077, for instance, has a fairly stunning 3D map (although, to be fair, it is also a cartographic disaster):

There are two major technological inventions happening in gaming that I am optimistic will eventually make their way to boring old web maps:

Game Engine Graphics

Unreal Engine 5 was announced last year and is siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiick.

The new Microsoft Flight simulator uses an in-house game engine that is textured with all of Bing’s aerial and satellite imagery and is so convincing that it’s actually kind of unnerving:

Mapbox and Cesium are neck-and-neck working on making 3D mapping awesome in a modern SaaS context, but there’s still a ways to go before the maps they render look that good. They’ll get there, though, and I’m excited for it.

Compression

In video games, a 2D pixelated surface is called a “texture” while in mapping it’s called a “raster.” But they’re essentially the same thing. One of my favorite small companies is Binomial, which makes GPU-optimized compression algorithms and associated tools for shrinking HD textures. I hadn’t actually looked at their home page in a couple years before writing this blog post…and now Esri is a big logo on the homepage. See? I’m not as dumb as I look.

Two Predictions About Where We’re Headed…

UX Design Will Matter More than Ever

As the tech chasm closes between video games and boring B2B SaaS software, the remaining gulf will still be aesthetics.

One of my favorite companies of the last few years is Unfolded. A gaggle of brilliant engineers, data scientists, and designers walked away from their comfortable Bay Area tech salaries at Uber to build the most exciting mapping interface I’ve ever played with.

Cyberpunk 2077 looks like it could have been built in Unfolded. I mean, just look at this stuff:

Twitter avatar for @unfoldedincUnfolded @unfoldedinc
Excited to announce our collaboration w/@Google developing an #opensource C++ version of
deck.gl! Learn more about this huge milestone and the new opportunities ahead unfolded.ai/blog/2020-09-0… #geospatial #GoogleEarth @UberOpenSource Cross-platform geospatial visualization with deck.gl-native https://www.unfolded.ai/blog/2020-09-02-cross-platform-deckgl/

Some of you may recognize the name Unfolded because they were in the news recently when Foursquare acquired them for an undisclosed (and probably ungodly) sum.³ A classic case of good things happening to good people.

The reason Unfolded is worth paying up for even though they’re only a few years old is simple: you get a tool that pumps out 10-minute-maps visually on par with 10-year $300M AAA gaming studio projects.

We’re Due for an (Artificial) Reality Check

If I grew up in the golden age of consoles, kids today will say they grew up in the golden age of AR. One of the first things I ever wrote about publicly online was Facebook’s acquisition of Mapillary, which it turns out was all about AR.

Sean would know. He recently sold his AR mapping company, Pixel8earth, to Snap. Mapillary’s former COO, Janine Yoong, is his coworker. And they both work with Randy Meech, whose Places of Interest mapping startup StreetCred was also acquired by Snap earlier this year.

They are building a freaky mappy Frankestein’s monster over there. If you’re working in Corp Dev at Snap: congrats, you have exceptional taste.

It would seem we’re in the midst of a massive AR mapping arms race. Apple recently updated their maps with a stylized aesthetic so smooth it could pass for a new release of Beautiful Katamari.⁴

Not to mention the work they’re doing turning everyone’s iPhones into survey grade mapping equipment (with or without the LiDAR upgrade):⁵

Twitter avatar for @emmanuel_2mEmmanuel @emmanuel_2m
A quick second test of Apple's #ObjectCapture: the bridge at El Palo Alto park. 95 pics. On @Sketchfab:
skfb.ly/o6UpW It seems LiDAR will work better for scanning large areas, and Object Capture will be more suited to small objects (e-commerce catalogs, typically). Image

Meanwhile NVIDIA, the premier GPU chip makers, acquired “HD Mapping” company DeepMap last week. Maybe it’s about autonomous vehicle navigation, or maybe it’s about realistic AR maps, or maybe it’s about both.

What’s interesting to me about AR as a new interface is that it’s so new that even video game developers are struggling to figure out how to work with it. Watch this space—the new design patterns and technologies that emerge will slowly but surely make their way into the rest of the mapping industry.

By the time the innovative stuff happening in AR gaming makes it into enterprise mapping software, I’ll probably be an unbearable old man complaining about how easy kids have it now that they can just download the world’s knowledge directly into their implanted brain chip.

But at least I’ll be able to tell them to brain-search for this newsletter in their brain-index and then tell them, “See? I saw this coming.”


¹ My parents refused to buy me a video game console. I begged for a Nintendo 64 for years to no avail. Eventually, though, I got my way. In fifth grade, I entered a Daughters of the American Revolution essay contest (yes, seriously) and took home first prize—$500 of cold, hard Revolutionary cash. I bought myself a Playstation 2.

² Slack has the same origin story. When his video game project Glitch failed, Stewart Butterfield laid almost everyone off and then launched the company’s internal chat client as an enterprise communications product…somehow it worked.

³ Yes, Foursquare is still around. Much ink has been spilled on their miraculous transition from consumer app darling to enterprise API. It’s a cool story and worth reading if you aren’t already familiar with it.

⁴ Great minds think alike…I incidentally found the tweet below while searching Twitter to see if there’s a new Justin O'Beirne essay on the Apple Maps update (there is not).

⁵ Thanks to Doug Thompson for always pointing me to the most interesting underground AR stuff happening across the web. One of my favorite Twitter follows. Go follow him.