Google Street View is about the coolest online mapping service released in a while, but its imagery is of inconsistent quality. Street View images are full of lens flare, distortion, and poor stitching artifacts. They're good enough for entertainment or for getting a general idea of a local scene, but not for much else.
A new company, Earthmine, plans to launch soon an urban imagery system that features much more precise data and visuals. Using laser range-finding and still photography (instead of the video that Google's current system employs), the Earthmine system will offer not only sharp and perspective-correct visuals, but also will collect 3D data--the actual survey-quality coordinates of light poles, trash cans, storefronts, your neighbor's tree encroachment into your front yard, and so on.
The Earthmine truck (the picture below is of the truck a block from my house, which is how I stumbled on this company) uses a unique stereo camera/rangefinder array. The cameras are mounted a bit higher than those that Google uses, so the Earthmine pictures peer over the tops of cars, another advantage of its setup (that is, until the truck drives under a low overpass).
In a demo of an Earthmine prototype, the dynamic range of the 3D imagery I saw was very impressive. In one panorama, details in dark doorways were clear, as were nuances in a white, sun-blasted building front. This is something that's hard enough to do with a standard, straight-on photography; I don't know how the team managed it on an image that's 360-degrees around and that extends from horizon to sky. Also cool: although the images look as sharp as a tack, when you zoom in to scan a license plate or view a face, you realize that they've been resolution-limited, so you can't make out data such as these. Applying "appropriate resolution" to imagery is done automatically, I was told.
Earthmine plans to sell its mapping service (which includes the entire work-flow system, from picture gathering to post-processing to assembling a Web site) to business and governmental agencies. A consumer-facing portal with (it is claimed) intuitive online navigation is also planned. The full site should launch later this summer.