'The map comes alive': Nokia Here boss dreams of drones, self-driving cars

The future of Nokia's Here mapping service is smartwatches, self-driving cars, and drones -- but first there's the rather more pressing matter of Microsoft carving up the company.

The Nokia booth at MWC: Full of sculpture and Android-based phones. Sarah Tew/CNET

BARCELONA, Spain -- "Mapping 1.0 is done," says the head of Nokia Here. He envisions a world of constantly-updating, infinitesimally precise maps guiding us on through the world on our smartwatches and smartphones, as self-driving cars zoom past and delivery drones soar overhead.

"First we had paper maps with lots of colourful lines," says Christof Hellmis, head of map platforms at Nokia Here, "but now the world is moving to the next generation of maps, which will be 3D, and will include Augmented Reality, like our CityLens app."

I met with Hellmis at industry shindig Mobile World Congress -- where the Nokia X line-up is making its debut -- to talk the future of Nokia, both the bright shining future of next-generation technology and the rather more pressing future of Nokia's dramatic split at the hands of Microsoft.

Full CNET coverage of the 2014 Mobile World Congress

Here runs the location services in X phones, just like it does for Nokia's Lumia phones -- and just like it does for devices and services as diverse as Microsoft's Bing search engine, Windows 8.1 tablets and computers, and even Volvo cars.

This diversity of devices and transformation of transport requires a quantum leap in location technology. "Mapping 2.0," says Hellmis, "is in the cloud, and is highly precise -- it's centimetre exact, right down to a car knowing what lane it's in."

Not only will a car know where it is and where it's going, but it will take you there too. Hellmis believes that maps are crucial for self-driving cars, which rely on accurate sensors and high-quality map detail to go where they need to. A world of cars that drive off and park themselves is "not too far off...we already have park assist, where you take your hands off the wheel and the car parks itself."

Hellmis smiles at the fascinating fusion of motoring's past and future that saw a Mercedes S-Class recently drive itself 100-kilometres across Germany to recreate the first long-distance drive by Bertha Benz, wife of motoring pioneer Karl Benz.

'Google is not a location player'
One of the companies working on self-driving cars is Here's biggest rival in the world of maps. But Hellmis dismisses Google as a rival: "Google is not a location player," he argues. "You can't get mapping without adopting the whole ecosystem, Google Now, Google Plus, Google whatever. We don't do that. We want money for our service, we get money for our service. We're very different from an Internet player with an advertising monetisation model."

Hellmis says Here is going to be an important part of this autonomous automotive future. He reckons "there's not a single car manufacturer we're not working with", a relationship he says has been forged over a quarter of a century of collaborating with the motor industry.

But maps are more than just roads. With smartphones, smartwatches, and other devices helping you find your way even on foot, Hellmis believes maps are shifting from being all about cars and roads to a wider world, off the beaten track and into places that GPS just can't reach.

Going indoors
Hellmis says Here is "investing a lot" in indoor mapping, charting the inside of buildings where you can't be traced by GPS. Here already charts the interiors of more than 50,000 venues around the world -- including, for example, the cavernous Barcelona conference centre where this interview took place -- with the data compiled in different ways, perhaps supplied by the venues themselves.

And you can help Here go off-road: Here includes a Map Creator, which allows you to submit and help edit mapping information. The map-creating community is policed by local trained geographers to ensure accuracy.

Maps for drones
Soon, we'll even have maps of the concrete canyons and steel valleys of our cities. Ultimately, Hellmis envisions Here will be "as close as possible to a representation of reality, with data for autonomous cars, for pedestrians indoors, even for drones, with maps to navigate around cities and skyscrapers". It will collect "real-time data from probes in vehicles, in cars...as cities become smart cities, tracking how people move around processing several million updates per second," he says.

That all-encompassing, ever-updating world map, charting the ground beneath us and the sky above us, will be "expensive to build" and will develop "over decades" -- but Hellmis asserts that realising such a vision is "the business we're in".

Heady stuff. But meanwhile, back in the here and now, it's an interesting -- and turbulent -- time for Nokia. The Finnish giant, once the world's largest mobile phone manufacturer until Samsung usurped the title, has been sliced into sections: the guys and gals who actually make phones are being absorbed by Microsoft, while Here Maps remains part of a phone-free Nokia.

What does the Microsoft deal mean for Nokia and Here?
Here has been a cross-platform creature since it was launched eighteen months ago, and a cynic might suggest that someone may have sniffed the air and decided even then it might be a capital idea not to get too tied in with Nokia hardware. Coincidentally, I am a cynic, so I put this theory to the man from Here.

Hellmis laughs off my theory, explaining that Here has always been dedicated to appearing on a range of platforms for business reasons. The goal of Here is "to be the location service for as many people as possible", he explains, regardless of which phone, car, or search engine they favour. That's because Here makes money by licensing its mapping data and technology to companies such as Microsoft, Volvo, and others.

Here Maps, Nokia's cross-platform location service.

Historically, Here had its roots in mapping companies Gate 5 and NAVTEQ, absorbed a few years back by Nokia as companies already dedicated to cross-platform mapping. Hellmis points out too that even within Nokia there have been various platforms to support, with Symbian, Series 40, Windows Phone, and Asha all co-existing at various points.

Hellmis plays down the changes you might expect after the Microsoft deal. Microsoft remains "one of our biggest customers," and Here will continue to work with Nokia's hardware team too -- so even if the sign on Nokia's door changes, it seems it's still business at usual.

Sadly, Hellmis wouldn't be drawn on the future of Nokia phones and the Lumia brand after they cross the park to Microsoft. But he is enthusiastic about the future of Here: "Maps for us is just starting. The first stage was to convert paper to digital. Now, the map comes alive. It is no longer about what a map looks like, but what does it do?"

For more on the Nokia X and the latest cutting edge phones, tablets, smart watches and automotive advances, chart a course for our in-depth coverage of Mobile World Congress 2014.

 

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