At the HERE office in Carlsbad, just north of San Diego, Michael Limber is making new tools for us – tools that allow us to create 3D models of the world using the high-resolution mapping information we’re gathering about roads and cities.
In some ways, these 3D worlds might be more reminiscent of videogames than any map you’ve used in the past.
And the comparison is apt, as it happens, because Michael joined HERE after a lengthy first career in the videogame industry.
“I was co-founder of Angel Studios,” Michael tells us, “which specialised in open street-racing games. We created the Midtown Madness series for Microsoft. Then Midnight Club and its sequels for Rockstar Games.”
The studio was acquired by Rockstar in 2003, and some of the technology and driving game play mechanics created for the Angel Studios racing games are still part of the latest Grand Theft Auto release.
So a bit of a jump to creating maps for HERE, then?
“Not so much of a jump as you might think, nowadays. Historically, maps are 2D views of a place from above. But now there’s much more demand for 3D views of the world, transitioning smoothly from overhead down to street level,” he says.
“Interacting with the map will become a much more cinematic experience. You can see one hint at that in the way HERE Auto automatically changes perspective as it zooms in and out, depending on whether you’re close to making a decision or not.
“Classic maps represent a road as being a series of line segments across the world. Our next generation maps from HERE present a surface-based model of the world in 3D, with accurate lanes and intersections, buildings and landmarks, and other important roadside objects”
“And we’re making maps for a new generation. My teenage son expects far more from his media than I did at his age. There’s an expectation that everything is interactive. Everything can be touched and manipulated.
“Cartography as the basis for a map will never go away, but a map is now a living canvas. A much richer playground than it ever was in the past.
And even the software is familiar from his old job.
“I’ve been working with 3D since the early 80s – back when we only had triangles to work with – and what’s amazing is how similar the underlying technology remains. What’s new today is the availability of advanced 3D tools, game engines like Unity and Unreal – typically used for creating videogame worlds – which can be used by our designers to prototype 3D map concepts.
“But at HERE, our data is very specialised and contains lots of data and layers of information that would never find their way into a computer game.
“That’s why we’re building proprietary tools for creating and editing the 3D map, so that we can more easily manipulate and integrate new features and functions.
“Another reason we don’t use existing software packages is that our 2D map data has evolved for more than 20 years, and still used in four of five in-vehicle navigation systems in North America and Europe today. We can’t lose that information. So even as we build the new 3D map model, it back-references the 2D map underneath it.”
This vision of maps as a cinematic experience sounds exciting. But isn’t there a risk that they’ll confuse or distract users – especially drivers?
“That’s a fair point. But now we can alter the appearance of the map and customize it for each use case.
“We have all this data and detail in the system and we have the option to show it or not. In the past, we only had cartography. Now we have options to show everything or to reduce the detail and increase the clarity.
“It’s like a pipe organ. You can pull all the valves at once and give the full-on cinematic 3D experience. Or just press softly on a couple of keys and show the subtlest cues.”
What’s the typical make-up of games designer that makes them suited to this work?
“What are game designers like? Well, they’re all loons!” he laughs.
“They are people who are compulsively interested in things and how they all interact. They’re fascinated by the world around them and often dream about building new ones.
“I sometimes think of my job as designing the world’s largest videogame, with a single planet-sized level.
“That said, what’s sometimes hard for someone from the gaming industry is to accept the level of abstraction required: to remember that I’m still making a map. It’s tempting to add all the bells and whistles, which can make the maps visually cluttered, data heavy, and reduce performance. So you quickly learn to focus on what’s truly relevant to the user’s needs.”
Michael’s group has recently finished building 55 square-kilometres of central Chicago in 3D as part of the testing process for the tools, processes, and prototypes they’re charged with creating. But that test world has gone on to live a second life. “It’s been very useful to the connected car guys.”
We were shown some of the driving simulator equipment used to test new automotive map interfaces back in August. Now, instead of simulated countryside, the designers can use the much more convincing environment of real-world Chicago with accurate lane-level data to test their hypotheses.
“The next cities we tackle will throw in different kinds of challenges with lots of elevation changes and other complex real-world situations.”
Michael is excited about the future of our map, “I’m looking forward to when the map will be a more personal, dynamic, and immersive experience — more akin to today’s entertainment and games. And, believe it or not, that future is right around the corner. Game on!”