Geo Week News

July 11, 2011

Earthmine’s first annual partner conference shows off technology, business model

BERKELEY, Calif. – In his opening remarks at earthmine’s first annual partner conference, held here, co-founder and co-CEO Anthony Fassero reported to the audience of nearly 100 that the company and its partners have mapped more than 200,00 km of road and more than 200 cities.

Fassero makes the case for the panoramic image to be the de facto standard of reality capture. Certainly the popularity and attendant controversy of Google StreetView speaks to how compelling humans find panoramic images. However, earthmine’s panoramic image technology — wide-angle photogrammetry at its core —  differs from StreetView in that each pixel has 3 spatial coordinates. In other words, you can measure with earthmine images, unlike StreetView. Earthmine developed some of its core technology in partnership with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Don’t expect total station accuracies; but for many applications, survey grade accuracy isn’t needed or isn’t cost effective.

Along with the debut of a new mobile mapping technology (see blog entry here), there was information in abundance here about how earthmine goes to market and what the potential use cases are.

Earthmine hardware and software technologies 

Earthmine technology leans heavily on cloud computing execution; Oliver Monson relayed some details about the company’s relationship with Penguin Computing for scalable processing at the conference. Monson also described how the company encrypts its data to be TRUSTe Safe Harbor compliant. The multistep processing pipeline that begins with rectification of the fish-eye images from the eight system cameras also includes a privacy filter step to automate the fuzzing of faces and license plate information in the final images. The output images are chunked into sizes optimized for fast web delivery.

Hardware engineer Mike Prado explained that one of the company’s key technologies is a proprietary shutter system designed for reliability for 20 million cycles. This is a significant and necessary jump beyond the 150,000 cycle expectancy of most focal plane cameras. Other design elements driven by the company’s emphasis on field reliability include fixed focus, fixed aperture and what appear to be rock solid housings. Citing issues with laptop reliability, next generation equipment will incorporate a back-end processor with a tablet interface.

Earthmine’s novel business model 

Earthmine’s business model is every bit as novel and compelling as its technology. Currently, the company has 25 partners in 13 countries. Get this: partners are not required to buy the hardware to become a partner. You can get started by selling a project; earthmine will execute the data collection and post-processing and leave the partner to package this as a solution. There are pricing and data use advantages to owning the equipment outright. However, the try-before-you-buy approach makes a lot of sense in this new market.

Partnerships with ESRI and Autodesk 

GIS colossus ESRI and CAD colossus Autodesk like the earthmine concept too. Lawrie Jordan, ESRI director of imagery, remarked on the importance of image data, particularly 3D image data, to GIS users. He also observed that the challenge of using image data had “flipped from availability to accessibility,” and that this creates the imperative to use scalable cloud-based computing assets to process the massive data sets. Jordan echoed Fassero’s remarks about the importance of mobile delivery of the results: “The phone is how people want to see geospatial data.” Autodesk’s Justin Lokitz presented PowerPoint about the integration earthmine with AutoCAD Map 3D.

Rich and varied partner presentations: augmented reality anyone? 

Earthmine partner presentations were quite stunning in their breadth, ranging from applying earthmine imaging technology to annotating the cities of France (http://www.urbandive.com) by French Yellow Pages provider PagesJaune to augmented reality studies by UC Berkeley professor Avideh Zakhor, Intel researcher Igor Kozintsev and Bentley researcher Stéphane Cote. Overlaying metadata with pixel-level precision for a moving observer – a shopper in a mall looking at a storefront on his phone and at the actual storefront for example – remains a challenging problem. It’s not at all easy to figure out the position and pose of a cell phone with pixel-level precision. Of course today’s new smart phones come with GPS and crude tilt sensors but these sensors are inadequate to serve up the world with the needed fidelity. The problem is even tougher in GPS-denied environments.  Image processing seems to be a necessary ingredient; the challenge is to offload some of the heavy computing to a remote server. Even today’s mobile devices lack the capacity to get it all done locally; the databases are too large. A lively panel discussion chaired by Mike Liebhold from the Institute for the Future and anchored by IBM researcher James Spohrer contemplated both the technology and business use case for augmented reality.

Ting, ting, ting: How to survey when there’s love in the air 

Santiago Forteza from CIVIS had the audience from the get-go when he hummed the opening bars of “The Girl from Ipanema” to introduce his talk on the use of earthmine imagery for a cadastral surveying in Fortaleza, Brazil. He went on to explain that one of the motivations – and I’m sure this was only lightly in jest — to use mobile scanning methods instead of boots on the street for surveying was that some surveyors were too readily distracted by love in the air. Each surveyor she passes goes aaah; yes, better to bring all the data back to office. Forteza’s talk was nearly all business; he reported a factor of 10 improvement in productivity over traditional field methods for capturing property parcel imagery. The initiative stems from tax collector appetites to crack down on property tax scofflaws.

Asset Management Applications 

Earthmine technology is squarely aimed at asset management applications. Sign infrastructure, utility pole locations, trees and the like are all readily captured, tagged and georeferenced for inclusion in a GIS asset management application. Trifecta CEO Clark Easter says that there’s as much as 30 percent wastage in maintenance budgets because of the lack of collaboration between different groups and disciplines in municipalities. One team will dig up the street to install a fiber optic cable; two weeks later a different team will dig up the same street to repair a water leak. The first step is to inventory the assets and put them all on the same map; the data collection piece is suited for earthmine workflows.

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