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Sony invests in What3words for better voice-controlled navigation

The digital addressing startup already is built into Mercedes car mapping systems.

What3words' three-word labels let you find spots without addresses, like "faded reveal mount" next to San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.

What3words' three-word labels, like "faded reveal mount" for a spot next to San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, let you find spots without addresses.

What3words

Sony has invested in What3words, a startup with digital addressing technology helpful to drivers, tourists, friends meeting at festivals and anyone else trying to make their way around the surface of the planet.

What3words' technology, available through its app and website, divides Earth into 57 trillion 10- by 10-foot squares, each with a unique three-word label. That can be useful for finding sites without addresses, like a picnic table at a park or a tourist tent in a Mongolian forest.

"What3words have solved the considerable problem of entering a precise location into a machine by voice," Toshimoto Mitomo, a Sony senior vice president, said in a statement. "The dramatic rise in voice-activated systems calls for a simple voice geocoder that works across all digital platforms and channels, can be written down and spoken easily."

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Smartphones, Google Maps and turn-by-turn directions have revolutionized transportation from the days of peering at paper maps. What3words shows we're not done with the transportation transformation.

Details of Sony's investment weren't disclosed. But it's not a first for London-based What3words. German carmaker Daimler took a 10 percent stake in What3words in 2018 and now uses its technology in its Mercedes A-Class and B-Class cars. Navigation company TomTom and ride-hailing company Cabify plan to enable What3words technology, too, the company said.

It seems likely Sony will head down this path, too.

"We are working closely with Sony on future uses because they are heavily invested in voice-controlled devices, particularly around the car, and automobility is a key focus for What3words," What3words said in a statement.

What3words doesn't directly compete with Google Maps, the dominant mapping service. In principle, the two could be integrated, but that likely would require a pretty big change of heart at Google.

For one thing, it'd be ceding a potentially important part of location technology to another company. For another, Google's already built in its own competing plus codes technology that provides locations with text that's shorter than latitude-longitude coordinates.

Google's plus codes, unlike What3words' system, is open-source software anyone can implement without payment. And although What3words has criticized plus codes as alphanumeric text gibberish, plus codes are language-independent. What3words' technology is available in 26 languages, but there are a lot more that aren't supported.

Google didn't comment for this story.

First published Jan. 17, 7 a.m. PT.
Update, 8:30 a.m. PT: Adds more background on Google plus codes.

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