Silicon Valley’s next goal is 3D maps of the world — made by us

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Silicon Valley’s next goal is 3D maps of the world — made by us

When technology transformed the camera, the shift from film to digital sensors was just the beginning. As standalone cameras were absorbed into our phones, they gained software smarts, enabling them not only to capture light but also to understand the contents of a photo and even recognise people in it.

A similar transformation is now starting to happen to maps — and it too is powered by those advances in camera technology. In the next 20 years, our collective understanding of a “map” will be unrecognisable from the familiar grid of roads and places that has endured even as the A-Z street atlas has been supplanted by Google Maps.

Before long, countless objects and places will be captured and recreated in 3D digital models that we can view through our phones or even, at some stage, on headsets. This digital world might be populated by our avatars, turned into a playing field for new kinds of games or used to discover routes, buildings and services around us. 

Nobody seems sure yet what the killer app for this “digital twin” of Planet Earth might be, but that hasn’t stopped Silicon Valley from racing to build it anyway. Facebook, Apple, Google and Microsoft, as well as the developers of Snapchat and Pokémon Go, are all hoping to bring this “mirrorworld” to life, as a precursor to the augmented-reality (AR) glasses that many in tech see as the next big thing.

To place virtual objects in our world, our devices need to know the textures and contours of their surroundings, which GPS cannot see. But instead of sending out cars with protruding cameras to scan the world, as Google did to build Street View over the past decade and a half, these maps will be plotted by hundreds of millions of users like you and me. The question is whether we even realise that we have been dragooned into Silicon Valley’s army of cartographers.

They cannot do it without us. This month, Google said it would ask Maps users to upload photos to Street View using their smartphones for the first time. Only handsets running its AR software can contribute. 

As Michael Abrash, chief scientist at Facebook’s Oculus headset unit, recently told Fast Company magazine: “Crowdsourcing has to be the primary way that this works. There is no other way to scale.”

That is why game developer Niantic is enlisting its players to capture scans of the local points of interest that form gyms (the game’s “battlegrounds”) and “PokéStops” in its best-known title, Pokémon Go. “The more realistic [they are], the cooler the game will be,” says Yuji Higaki, head of engineering at Niantic. More than 635,000 locations have already been mapped since Niantic’s scheme went live earlier this year, says Higaki, each requiring dozens or even hundreds of scans to create a reliable digital model.

These maps will be plotted by users like you and me. Will we even realise we have been dragooned into Silicon Valley’s army of cartographers?

Players are incentivised to capture a location by the promise of in-game items. Depending on how much you value free Poké Balls, that seems like a good deal for Niantic in return for such valuable data. But, crucially, players must opt in to the scanning effort first. A series of onscreen prompts urges them to “scan cautiously” and “be respectful of others”. “Putting up these prompts will reduce the number of people who upload scans, but we are fine with that,” says Higaki.

Pokémon Go has another warning for players: not to scan inside “private residences” or other non-public locations. By contrast, Facebook is very interested in non-public locations. Last year, it detailed a research project called Replica to create photorealistic models of homes and offices. Facebook researchers wrote in a blog post that this “could help us to place your grandma’s digital avatar in the seat next to you”. 

That may be a strong incentive after a year in which many of us have been unable to visit grandma in real life. But experience should teach us caution about what big tech companies have in mind when they ask to scan our living rooms. When Google was collecting images for Street View, it emerged in 2010 that it was also intercepting data from open WiFi networks as cars drove by, in what it later conceded was a massive privacy violation. Big tech companies would be wise to follow Niantic’s example and ask for our explicit consent before sucking our data into the mirrorverse.

With the latest innovations in camera and mapping technology, our photos can now be mined for far more valuable data than was possible a decade ago. We should think carefully before we blindly help Silicon Valley commit another drive-by privacy invasion en route to the future.

Tim Bradshaw is the FT’s global technology correspondent.

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Silicon Valley’s next goal is 3D maps of the world — made by us

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