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How What3words pinpoints every spot on Earth for better navigation

CEO Chris Sheldrick's startup is used by Mercedes cars and the Mongolian post office. China's biggest carmaker just invested, too.

What3words

When it comes to navigation, we live in an age of miracles. Speak a few words to your phone and it'll lead you to your friend's house.

But there's still room for improvement.

What3words CEO Chris Sheldrick

What3words CEO Chris Sheldrick

What3words

How do you tell your sister where to meet at the concert festival? Where along that dirt road is the trailhead? Today's navigation systems often rely on street addresses, but plenty of locations don't have one. Some countries have poorly developed postal codes, and even modern countries like France -- inventor of the metric system, no less -- doesn't always use street addresses, as I discovered trying to find rental houses on a vacation to Corsica.

That's why there's a startup called What3Words. The 70-person company labels each 10-foot-square patch of the planet with three words -- 57 trillion squares altogether. For example, the front door of CNET's headquarters is at decreased.mime.crab, but the loading dock for package delivery is epic.noses.upgrading. The result: an easier way to direct people to your location without the jumble of numerical coordinates.

The technology is being built into the official postal system in countries like Mongolia, Ivory Coast and Nigeria, and Mercedes, an investor, is incorporating What3Words navigation into its cars.

To figure out the What3words label for a particular location, or to figure out what a location a label points to, you can use the free What3words mobile app or website. Some apps like Navmii also have support built in.

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And more allies are on the way. On Thursday, What3words announced a new investment from SAIC Motor, China's largest carmaker, and from Alpine Electronics, which makes radios and navigation systems for cars. Other earlier investors include German train operator Deutsche Bahn, Dubai-based shipping firm Aramex, and Intel Capital. Navigation companies TomTom and Sygic are customers, too.

Chief Executive Chris Sheldrick founded the London-based company after navigation problems of his own. He sat down down to discuss What3words with CNET's Stephen Shankland. The following is an edited transcript of the discussion.

Q: Why did you found What3words, and what do you do?
Sheldrick: I founded the business because I used to work in the music industry and everyone got lost trying to find the gigs that I was organizing. I tried to get people to use latitude and longitude -- eight digits for latitude, eight digits for longitude -- but found it was very un-consumer friendly. A truck driver mixed up a 4 and a 5 and ended up an hour north of Rome instead of an hour south. The idea was, how can we compress this latitude and longitude into something simple for consumers?

We found that there were enough combinations of three words that you could just sign a unique three-word combination to every 3-meter-by-3-meter square -- a 10-foot-by-10-foot square -- in the world. That felt like it was easy enough that everyone in the world, from a child to a grandparent, could use it.

The way people use What3words right now is mostly with an app, where you type in that three-word locator and it will navigate you to it, or you find out a spot's three-word locator and share it, right?
Sheldrick: That's right. For the first five years, it's been predominantly about using a three-word address in the What3words app. The long-term goal is to get people using a three-word address in all of the services they use in everyday life and become less and less reliant on the What3words app.

You have some partnerships. Where might people run into this in the real world?
Sheldrick: There's a whole series of apps that people use, like the Beeline app for cyclists, or Navmii, the world's biggest offline navigation app. These are fairly straightforward -- you just put the three-word address in and it takes you to that 3-meter square. What we've started doing is expanding out into post and logistics. Organizations want to deliver stuff very accurately to somewhere, but a lot of the time are in countries where where addresses just don't exist. Take Aramex, the biggest courier in the Middle East. We're working in Saudi Arabia, where addresses are few and far between. You can put a three-word address into an e-commerce site, then Aramex will deliver it to your front door using your three-word address. The Mongolian postal service is our first government client. It's a big country but with not many addresses. You can now put three words onto an envelope, post it, and the Mongolian postal service will take it where you want.

The What3words mobile app offers precise location labels for spots that don't have street addresses. Want to have pizza delivered in the middle of Central Park?

The What3words mobile app offers precise location labels for spots that don't have street addresses. Want to have pizza delivered in the middle of Central Park?

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

What we're now expanding into is the next generation of mobility. Every Mercedes car with their latest navigation system has What3words in it as standard. Voice recognition is the key use case. You say, "Hey Mercedes, take me to table.chair.spoon," and it will navigate there -- no awkward moving of a dial or other ways of putting in an address.

Once the cars become more autonomous, with no steering wheel and no pedals, it really matters what your destination is because you can't move the car. You can't do what you do now, where the car says you've arrived, then you look around and see [your destination] is around the corner. If drone delivery is going to happen, you're going to need to tell it exactly where to go.

So if you want a package on your back porch versus your front porch, then What3words has sufficient precision?
Sheldrick: If the [navigation mapping] pin drops in the middle of your roof, that's not going to work. An address totally ceases to become usable. A company called DXC Technology has made an app with Alexa where they say, "Hey, Alexa, tell the drone to go to word.word.word" and the drone will then go there.

Here in the US, most people have addresses, and I think a lot of people aren't going to see this as a problem. Can you give examples of things you can do that you can't do with a street address?
Sheldrick: When you go outside the towns and cities for anything in rural areas, addresses will let you down and What3words would help you. When you are in towns and cities, you can give the precise entrance to buildings. Every time I go to somewhere in San Francisco, I'm always standing at the wrong entrance. Sure, I'll get there in a bit, but it's 2018, I should get there the first time.

Want to meet at an obscure spot on a South African beach? What3words has a label for it.

Want to meet at an obscure spot on a South African beach? What3words has a label for it.

What3words

If you're using a voice assistant, you'll know the problem of trying to speak an address to the voice assistant and having problems with duplicated street names in a nearby area. Any concert venue or music festival where you've got a large area, it's exactly the same thing -- it's which entrance, which car park, the grassy bit near the tree by the stage.

How do you guys make money from this?
Sheldrick: The What3words consumer app and website are totally free for consumers and businesses. We make money by a tool that converts three-word addresses into latitude and longitude, which you need if you're a company like Mercedes. When you tell it the three words, it's meaningless to the device until it becomes latitude and longitude. So it's that enterprise code that we license.

Do you make that available through an API [application programming interface] so apps can tap into your servers to do that translation?
Sheldrick: It's available to an API, or people can have an SDK [software developer kit] which runs totally offline.

Some buildings don't have street addresses even if they're on a street. What3words can give them one, which is why some postal services have embraced the technology.

Some buildings don't have street addresses even if they're on a street. What3words can give them one, which is why some postal services have embraced the technology.

What3words

If you have this app installed on your phone and you have no network service, will What3words work?
Sheldrick: Absolutely. All of the three-word addresses for the world are embedded in our app. Our app will point you where to go with a compass, but if you want to have an interactive turn-by-turn navigation system, that's when you should use Navmii. It's got offline maps of the world embedded and offline What3words for the world embedded.

Can people buy vanity word combinations?
Sheldrick: You can't. If you do that, [the app] can't work offline. And you'd have voice recognition problems if someone were to buy john.smith.home and someone else jon.smith.home, one with J-O-H-N- and one with J-O-N.

One of the biggest problems for you is that Google Maps rules the world for a lot of consumers. What kind of alliance would you like to see?
Sheldrick: We would like to integrate into all of the major mapping platforms. It's important to separate maps from navigation from addresses. We don't compete with maps. We don't compete with navigation. We just provide an alternative way of typing in an address.

But Google has its own technology, plus codes [formerly Open Location Code], which shorten latitude-longitude coordinates into a string of letters and numbers that perhaps are a bit easier to retype. What's your take on that?
Sheldrick: It's actually not much shorter than a latitude and longitude. It's 10 characters, and latitude and longitude is 16. And I cannot remember the plus codes. It's exactly the same as what [navigation company] TomTom built about a decade ago -- map code, which is nine characters. This is one character harder. It's like trying to remember the password on the back of your Wi-Fi router. It's very, very difficult, even if somebody takes you through it letter by letter. Three words feels very easy for everybody to remember and use and communicate, but long series of alphanumeric characters just aren't.

Mercedes is building What3words location technology into its cars. The spoken words are relatively easy for a human to remember and a computer to understand for voice control.

Mercedes is building What3words location technology into its cars. The spoken words are relatively easy for a human to remember and a computer to understand for voice control.

What3words

And good luck saying "M as in Mary, N as in Nancy."
Sheldrick: This is really problematic. We're meeting on El Camino Real at the moment. I tried putting that road into my rental car sat-nav. There were so many in the neighboring area, this one didn't even come up on the menu. In London, you've got 34 roads called Victoria Road. In Mexico City, 632 Juarez Streets. If you're someone who builds a voice interface for navigation, where you need to get it right first time, this is a major problem.

Who are you in talks with right now for your next phase of expansion?
Sheldrick: We're working with a lot of other car companies, a selection of the voice assistants and in some cases combining the two. The big phase of this year's rollout is to become ubiquitous across the automotive industry.

We are dealing with more and more e-commerce and logistics companies in emerging markets. We have compelling evidence of the financial benefit for a logistics company on saving all this time to actually reach customers accurately.

What happens when you're a tourist and a hotel gives you their address in Swahili or Japanese or French or some language you don't speak?
Sheldrick: You can share a three-word address in any one of our 26 languages. [A hotel] would do it based on expected usage. In travel guides, a lot of the time, people use English, because it's the international language. In the Middle East, a lot of people have an Arabic business card on one side and English on the other side. It's the same in China. They would probably do the same thing with a three-word address. They'd put the local language and English as their international language.

What3words can help you tell your friends which mall entrance to meet at.

What3words can help you tell your friends which mall entrance to meet at.

What3words

What countries use What3words for postal services right now?
Sheldrick: Mongolia is the country where it's up and in use. You can apply for a credit card now with the biggest bank in the country. You put an address on, the post service understands it, and it gets to you. There's several island countries, like the Solomon Islands and Tonga, where What3words had been adopted, but they are producing technology at the moment so that consumers can understand it. Same with Djibouti and Cote d'Ivoire [Ivory Coast].

Looking at the usage of your translation service to convert What3words locations to latitude-longitude, what's the biggest usage by category? Logistics? Post offices? Consumers?
Sheldrick: At the moment, consumers make up by far the biggest proportion of the buyer market. It's those who are often doing outdoor activities and going to new places. People who are traveling a lot experience this problem in a big way. People have told us they're buying a Mercedes for the first time because it has What3words.

We just released this photo app called 3word Photo where you can geotag a photo with it. You might have been in the middle of Yosemite National Park and saying, "I took this photo and it was exactly here." It's just a great way of immersing yourself in the ecosystem.

What's been the most surprising use?
Sheldrick: It's been interesting to see how NGO [nongovernmental organizations, like disaster response groups] or emergency services operations have taken to it. It's a really serious industry, but they hugely struggle with the communication of precise location because people use phone, SMS, all sorts of things. At the moment, a few UK police forces have started to build us in to their systems, which is amazing. The Red Cross uses it in the Philippines.

Some things are harder to remember than others. Long incomprehensible strings of alphanumeric characters are worse. What3words' three-word labels are easier.

What3words

Is it a problem for governments and emergency responders to rely on you for these services? Do people have complaints or objections or worries about relying on a private company to be a necessary middleman to connect people to their packages or people to their ambulances?

Sheldrick: Governments, emergency services or any company that operate at a certain scale need a certain level of reliability. This is one of the reasons we offer a local SDK, which means they can run it on their own system. So they have total control over how that works technically. Whatever happens to our servers, they are fine. If anything were to happen to our company, they could keep the technology, which they already have running locally.

The US address system is not in the control of FedEx or UPS. It's the US government, county governments, local. They have the canonical record of what is truth. I could see some indigestion if somebody else is in charge of what is truth about addresses and locations.
Sheldrick: One of the really good things about What3words is it's fixed for the whole world. There is no maintenance -- keeping up with new built properties or anything like that. It's done and that's it. If you have a copy of What3words running on your own server, that's it. The element of what is truth and what is up-to-date doesn't really exist.

You support 26 languages. Are you expanding that?
Sheldrick: Yes. We want everyone in the world to be able to use What3words in their first language.

How many languages is that?
Sheldrick: It's a lot. Some may have practical issues if you're talking about incredibly small word lists used in very remote parts of certain countries. So there may be some trade-offs we have to make. But our mission is to make this incredibly easy for everyone to use.

So you have an order to the words? The popular areas get short words, so the algorithm will see that a specific patch has particular characteristics, run down through its list of words, then spit out those three words?
Sheldrick: Yes, exactly. We basically have a pretty crude map of the world in terms of population centers. We make reasonably intelligent assumptions about how to distribute those words.

In the whole of the Antarctic, sure, you're going to find [something like] dodecahedron.hydraulics.esoterics. There may be a small population center there, but they'll have to use long words.

Let's project forward 10 to 15 years. Where are you guys going to be?
Sheldrick: We would like to be a global standard in a few years time. In every key piece of new mobility tech, from autonomous cars to drones to regular cars, the pain point with addresses is now or yesterday. The momentum shift is happening. Given the need for this in the world, I believe we're only a few years away from this becoming a standard, where you see a three-word address anywhere and you know what it is.

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