“Pokémon Go,” says Ian Hetherington, founder and CEO of eeGeo, a UK-based 3D mapping platform business, “has legitimised the augmented reality space.”
Regardless of whether or not you are currently immersed in the latest craze of catching digital creatures in churchyards, shops and parks, Pokémon Go is proving to be the killer application for a technology which has always impressed but rarely delivered on a mass scale.
For Hetherington, it justifies a decision to back the technology. The business, which recently raised $5m in funding, sees AR and VR as key technologies for its mapping platform. Maps can already be viewed through Google Cardboard and the company is currently developing for Microsoft’s Hololens. Hetherington says it’s a “natural progression” for the business to enable user access to maps through immersive experiences.
So what are these maps? Anyone who has played or seen the open virtual worlds of Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto series will recognise the thinking. Hetherington of course has gaming history. As well as co-founding games firm Psygnosis in the 80s (think Lemmings, Wipeout and Formula One on the Amiga) he was more recently chairman of Realtime Worlds, where GTA and Lemmings game designer David Jones worked.
Hetherington likes to talk about video games and admits Rockstar had the vision to create an exciting, playable open world. eeGeo’s contribution is to take that premise of the 3D virtual world and apply it to the real world.
“It doesn’t take a genius to see there is commercial potential,” says Hetherington, who adds that the business has now worked with a number of customers on developing mapping-related solutions, including Samsung, NTT Docomo, Cisco and the V&A. But while eeGeo to a large extent follows the money (this has led to the firm so far 3D mapping Japan, the UK and US) it sees huge potential in helping develop smart workplaces and eventually smart cities.
Hetherington talks about helping businesses reduce office costs through 3D building modelling, maximising space for transient workforces and the more obvious of course - customers experiencing their future office buildings before they are built. It’s here you can see the value of VR in particular. AR can demonstrate its true value in overlaying potential changes to existing buildings while on location. Hetherington says he has already seen enough of this work to realise there is a “very tangible ROI”.
Certainly the property potential is easy to get. Architectural consultancy ARUP used eeGeo’s 3D mapping platform to create an app to showcase proposed developments in Manchester to the City’s inward investment group MIDAS. Hetherington admits the business will continue to monetise the platform in this way and claims “customer engagements are accelerating,” citing work in California on modelling a campus but also the potential for extending work to a whole city.
It’s this sort of ‘big idea’ work that excites Hetherington, where the 3D map technology can meet open public data to create a richly featured map to help city leaders plan and improve urban spaces. It’s a sort of real Sim City idea, one that also fits with his ambitious plan to map the entire world in 3D.
Interestingly he says it only takes a week to model a country and is adamant that the 3D maps the company produces are “geometrically and geographically accurate”. The plan to expand the countries will, for the moment at least, depend on the location of potential customers. He adds that Italy, Sweden, Denmark and the Republic of Ireland are already in the works.
So what about Google and Apple? Both can now be considered viable mapping businesses so what makes eeGeo different? Are they a threat to his plans?
Hetherington doesn’t think so. He says “Google and Apple are not open platforms and they have a fixed feature set,” although he accepts they have, to date, formed the basis of mapping-related business needs. Microsoft’s Bing maps can also be thrown into this mix.
The point is that for any map business to really extend the genre it has to disrupt, to use new technologies and increase both accessibility and usability. Hetherington says that eeGeo is doing that, looking to break down the existing mapping barriers by focussing on 3D, not just for a handful of cities but for everywhere, inside buildings too.
It’s a huge task but for the moment at least the focus is on embracing the hot tech it seems, to help sell the message and maximise the 3D element of the maps.
“For the next six to 12 months, VR and AR are front and central,” says Hetherington. He is clearly buoyed by the success of Pokémon Go. As a games enthusiast and entrepreneur you would expect nothing less but it’s more than that. Hetherington says the possibilities for gaming use of eeGeo’s platform, especially if it has VR and AR capability, “are endless”.
Inevitably Hetherington will never be too far away from gaming, which after all is where this idea is rooted but whether it’s really the future of his mapping business remains to be seen. The options for the moment at least go well beyond gaming and the company’s use of open and private data to build context only extends the possibilities. Certainly there are plenty of markets to tackle and in the words of Pokémon, you “gotta catch em all” to really succeed.
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