Making real estate look good in Google's 3D world

The arrival of services such as Google Maps means those who own buildings need to care about their appearance online, too. A start-up can help with that.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
6 min read
The Best Western President hotel in Auckland, New Zealand, here highlighted in purple on Google Earth.
The Best Western President hotel in Auckland, New Zealand, here highlighted in purple on Google Earth. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

In the physical world, people knowing they'll be judged on appearances often prefer to put their best foot forward.

But there's a direct analog of the real world taking shape inside thousands of Google computers, a collection that began with addresses and roads and that's extended to photos and 3D buildings. What do you do when it's time to spruce up for virtual visitors?

You can of course learn how to create 3D models and submit them to Google. But a New Zealand start-up is hoping you'll do the same thing most people do when they need to design an addition or build a Web page: hire someone with the appropriate expertise.

Estate3D will build you a virtual model of your house that can appear on Google Earth and Google Maps--and for that matter on your own Web site if you want. The cost is $99 for a basic building.

It's not the only outfit, either. WebEpoch offers similar services. Google's SketchUp tool for 3D modeling has found a niche in architecture circles, and firms including Sketchup2India, Sketchup4Architect, and LunarStudio are among those who use it in their services. A company called In3D is reconstructing many Napa Valley, Calif., buildings in Google Earth.

"As more businesses become aware of the value of having a 3D presence in Google Earth, businesses are appearing to support that need," said Bruce Polderman, the Google Earth product manager.

It may sound like a frivolous expense. But don't laugh off the idea too hastily.

A company called In3D produced this 3D model of Newton Winery in Helena, California.
A company called In3D produced this 3D model of Newton Vineyard in St. Helena, Calif., that appears on Google Earth and Google Maps Earth View. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Some virtual land grabs fizzled--the rush for a presence in the Second Life so far was mostly a fad. Google Maps, though, is used by millions, and Web browsers are advancing to the point where the 3D buildings of a virtual realm will be much easier to display.

Who might care? The same sorts of people who care about their buildings' appearance in the real world have a reason to care--those with a lot of tourist traffic, real estate agents with distant customers, or stores on main thoroughfares.

A business won't live or die based on whether it's got a 3D presence on Google Maps, but having one could be smart. With the direction things are headed, it's likely people with car navigation systems will be able to see your online presence before they see the real thing. If nothing else, an accurate view could help people find your building faster.

And more broadly, the marriage of geographic detail and the Net is increasing in importance. Even as Facebook seeks to bring Internet data to the real world, Google is a powerhouse in the idea in bringing the real world to the Internet.

Technology underpinnings
There are several aspects of technology that are bringing this virtual world to pass. First, of course, is the Internet. It may seem obvious, but don't forget there was a day when mapping software was something you bought on a CD that stored the maps. The Net provides a mechanism not only to store a tremendous amount of data, but also to update it frequently and deliver it to everything from phones to car navigation devices.

More specifically, there's Google Maps and Microsoft's rival Bing Maps. These provide ever-more-useful services to people, not just finding your aunt's house in Cincinnati but also integrating higher-level data such as comments and star ratings about businesses. Google has built access to Google Maps into newer Android phones through its navigation app that can replace sat-nav devices as long as your phone has a Net connection.

Google Maps got more immersive with the 2007 launch of Street View, which endowed the service with a personal rather than bird's-eye view. (Bing Maps has a similar concept, complete with a relatively seamless zoom that transitions between the street-level and bird's-eye views.)

The next piece of the puzzle is Google Earth, which has a 3D virtual map of the entire planet, including terrain such as mountains and valleys. This software package isn't widely used compared to Google Maps, but Google has begun building Google Earth's 3D interface into Google Maps through a feature called Earth View.

A warehouse that Estate 3D built, shown in Google Maps' Earth View.
A warehouse that Estate 3D built, shown in Google Maps' Earth View. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

That 3D view requires a plug-in today, but you can bet that WebGL, which provides a mechanism for hardware-accelerated 3D graphics in the Web, will make it more accessible. Though Microsoft has responded coolly to adding WebGL into Internet Explorer, a WebGL plug-in approach could sidestep that significant limitation. The full interactivity of Google Maps--navigation, business ratings, and such-- would also have to be added.

Google Earth also comes with 3D buildings that show in Google Maps' Earth View. This is where the opportunity lies for companies such as Estate3D.

Last, Google's virtual world is an exercise in crowdsourcing. Although Google has been doing a lot of the heavy lifting, a sizable chunk of the world's population has been helping Google expand its database, including by mapping roads where Google doesn't have data or taking geotagged photos that end up in Street View. Last week, Google said 10,000 people submitted 25,000 suggestions in the five months since Google launched bike directions.

Where Second Life was largely detached from the real world, Google Maps is anchored firmly to it. It's an electronic interface that people use to get things done in the real world--including commerce with real currency, not Second Life's Linden dollars. In other words, it's a virtual first life.

Inside Estate3D
Estate3D is just getting started right now with its 3D building service. Ash Scott, who along with Hamish Evans are the company's principals, already is a contractor for creating 3D models. So far, the biggest model they've produced is the BDO Tower in Auckland, New Zealand.

"I got interested in this idea because I really enjoy 'geo modeling' and could see the opportunity for a low-cost, semi-automated system allowing people to get their buildings into Google Earth and, via the Google Earth API, to show their buildings off in 3D on their Web sites," Ash said.

Estate3D created this model of Old Corban's Winery in Gisborne, New Zealand.
Estate3D created this model of Old Corban's Winery in Gisborne, New Zealand. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

The company aims for a three-day turnaround to send their customers the file with their 3D building. They also submit the building to Google, which runs the building through a three-pass audit to make sure it's up to snuff before making it available through Google Earth and Maps. That usually takes up to two weeks, he said.

One issue potentially of concern to would-be 3D modeling entrepreneurs is that Google itself is competing with them. With 3D laser scanners now fitted to the cameras for Street View, Google is building its own 3D models of buildings at no charge.

There are a lot of buildings in the world, of course--Seville, Spain, arrived on Google Earth in 3D in July, for example, but there are a lot of cities in the world.

Ash doesn't see Google as an Estate3D competitor, though, and Polderman seems inclined to agree.

"User-generated models are often higher-quality than auto-generated models because they were developed using ground-based photos," Polderman said. "Users also frequently include rich metadata with a model, making it more valuable than auto-generated ones. User-generated models are strongly preferred and, if are equal or better quality, will replace the auto-generated model."

Making the models isn't simple. Even with customers supplying the photos that are applied to the virtual walls, Google has limits intended to keep Google Earth and Maps as responsive as possible. Buildings must be empty shells with no ground floors or internal walls. Graphics must be highly compressed. Structures with repeating elements can reuse the same component multiple times.

It's work, Ash said, but it's also pleasure.

"It isn't a straightforward process," he said of making the 3D models, "but it's very satisfying."