Missiles Into Models

A Swedish aerospace technology company beats swords into ploughshares, turning missile tech into what some have called “Google Maps on steroids.” Nokia just released a product licensing the tech.

San Francisco

Last week, Nokia released an upgraded version of it mapping service, Ovi. The upgrade was a milestone for a company called C3 Technologies, a spinoff from Saab, the Swedish aerospace company (no longer associated with the car company). Nokia’s application was the first public use of C3’s powerful new mapping technology.


Derived from tech that was intended to guide missiles, C3’s peacetime use renders 3-D color models of entire cities (like San Francisco, whose map is pictured above)–its buildings, statues, even its trees–to a resolution of 15 centimeters.

“The world is not flat,” declared Nokia triumphantly on its blog (leading Thomas Friedman to spit out his cup of coffee and recall all copies of his bestselling book).

“Unlike Google or Bing, all our maps are 360° explorable,” the company’s Paul Smith told Technology Review, which published a piece on C3 today. The major leg up C3 has over Google or Bing is its process. C3 flies over cities with a trade-secret number of cameras and snaps the minimum amount of photos to be able to infer the shapes of all the buildings. What we do know, according to Technology Review, is that “four cameras look out along the main compass points, at oblique angles to the ground” while other cameras “capture overlapping images from their own carefully determined angles.” C3 software infers depth from the 2-D pictures.

This video shows how playing with C3’s maps–twirling, panning, zooming–on a tablet could easily make you feel just a little bit like, well, God.


Here’s another video, which pits C3 against Google Maps.

While Google Earth also has some accurate rendering of 3-D buildings, it typically relies on manual labor to do so. C3’s process is “98% automated,” apparently–necessary since it has declared as its mission “to map the entire world.”

And not just the exterior world. C3 also has its eyes on mapping the indoors of buildings. It envisions a variety of applications of its technology, and has expressed a particular interest in augmented reality–provided cell phone GPS, which currently locates users less precisely than C3’s renderings, catches up.


C3, in the meanwhile, has its work cut out for itself. “It’s the start of the flying season in North America,” Smith said to Technology Review, “and we’re going to be very active this year.”

[Image: Flickr user drb62]

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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.