Google’s 3D Camera And Mobile Tech’s New Mapping Dimension

mapJorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian genius and writer who in many ways was a strict and old-fashioned Luddite, has somehow become a lodestone for the mobile tech age. His short and humble stories often revolve around how we deal with the intrusion of the fantastic into the every day, which is what we are dealing with in reality now. What is “The Aleph”—the point in the universe where all points past, present, and future are contained and can be seen—if not a version of the internet? Even more interesting is how Borges deals with maps in a way that you think about them differently. In some stories, set in distant, antiquated lands, maps are unholy abominations because they attempt to capture reality.

And really, in a thrilling way, that’s exactly what they are: an attempt to make the unfathomable hugeness of creation, both vast and impossibly minute, understandable and comprehensible. The internet and mobile technology have made that possibility tantalizingly close. With the introduction of a 3D camera from a joint project by Google and Intel, the chance to make maps a full representation of reality has taken another gigantic and threshold-crossing step, with exciting implications for how we interact with the world.

How Mobile Tech Has Changed The Possibility of Maps

Maps have always been translations of reality. They have never really attempted to be 100% accurate representations, because such a thing is madness. They attempt to take the world and put it on paper with as much exactitude as possible, but run into the limits of space, detail, and knowledge. These limits have had interesting results. Ignorance led to guesses—in Champlain’s first map of the Great Lakes, Lake Michigan was a fat river, because he was basing it on tales of a big body of water with a north/south orientation. Today’s maps have Lake Michigan shaped correctly, but only to a point. They don’t, and can’t, show every nook and inlet in a ragged shoreline. It’s impossible.

That’s where mobile technology and the internet come in. We take our GPS systems and automated directions for granted now, and even joke when our smartphones want us to make four right turns instead of one left, like a nervous aunt. But even that is amazing: our systems saw that there was no light or stop sign to aid in a left-hand turn, so it routed us to what it felt was the easiest path. It’s fun to joke about, but that obfuscates what we’re really talking about: a map that thinks about its physical environment.

In the long history of cartography, that is perhaps the most remarkable development. The kind of maps we have on our phones and tablets are as close to a direct translation as we have so far come up with. The whole world is seemingly in there. There is another step, though.

The 3D Camera And Total Representation

Google and Intel announced their 3D camera for smartphones on Wednesday at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco. This is a joint effort. Intel created the camera, a RealSense 3D device, which is working in Google’s Project Tango smartphone. The goal of Project Tango[1.] is “to give mobile devices a human-scale understanding of space and motion”. This 3D camera is a pretty major step toward that.

In theory, the 3D camera isn’t used to take incredible in-depth selfies, though it will eventually do that (full immersion in your friend’s dinner!), but rather to create models while using a combination gyroscope/accelerometer to fully understand and scope out an environment. A phone with this “high precision inertial motion unit” will be able to create a full map of a room while moving through it, all the while taking pictures. This can immediately help architects create models, and help real estate agents give full-immersion tours of any property. Seeing that innovations like Google Cardboard offer an inexpensive virtual reality, we’re not too far from a day where you’ll be able to virtually walk through any space, looking around, with a fully accurate spatial representation of your surroundings before your eyes.

Let’s pull back a bit. The extremely precise measurements of the inertial motion unit can create a fully accurate representation of the world. As a thought experiment, imagine being a block away from your home and completely blindfolded. All you have is your smartphone. It can tell you how many steps to take. It can tell you that the sidewalk dips in three steps, two, now. It lets you know exactly where the stairs are, how high the keyhole is, and can guide you precisely to your bed, avoiding the nightstand on which you always stub your toe.

Obviously, this isn’t necessary for many of us, though there could be great applications for the blind. This is just a thought experiment, though, to show how pervasive and accurate our mapping capabilities are getting. Our smartphones and tablets are beginning to fully understand the world, and while that might be scary to some, the actual implication is that it allows us to fully understand the world, in all its dimensions. That kind of knowledge can only be a good thing.

In a one-paragraph micro-story[1.], On Exactitude in Science, Borges tells us of an empire whose cartographers were so exact that they made a map as a 1:1 representation of the kingdom. This map was so large that every point corresponded perfectly with its location in the kingdom. Later generations found the map useless and destroyed it, though it can still be found in tattered forms in some western deserts. With the grace of time, and the miracle of mobile technology, we can both have that exact map, spread not over the vastness of actual space but in our pockets, and be able to comprehend and appreciate its use.

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