A new street-level mapping system will offer better imagery than Google Street View. Using laser range-finding and still photography, Earthmine will offer not only sharp and perspective-correct visuals, but also will collect 3D data
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.
See also Microsoft's Live Search Maps (in preview), EveryScape, and HopStop (for the street view you get when you exit a subway; review). Unfortunately, Amazon's A9 "block view" maps are now offline.