Tele Atlas speeding up 3D road map progress

3D maps in production for 50 cities worldwide

News IDG News Service June 07, 2007
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Tele Atlas NV is busy gathering data for three-dimensional views of roads and their surroundings for use in a new generation of satellite navigation systems. In a move to expand beyond providing data for the highly competitive market for 2D maps, the company is venturing into 3D digital navigation maps, according to IDG News Service.

The company has sent 22 orange-colored camper vans equipped with cameras, laser sensors, Global Positioning System (GPS) hardware and computers to amass data including pictures, the height of bridges and the slope of roads around the world for 3D digital maps, IDG reported.

With 50 cities currently in production, data for 3D maps is already complete for several cities, including Berlin and Rome, according to IDG, and maps of the U.S. and Asia could be produced as early as next year.

3D maps show actual roads, buildings, trees and traffic signs, unlike 2D navigational maps that show lines and arrows.

"3D maps render a very realistic picture of a street and its surroundings," Tele Atlas database director Georg Fisch told IDG. "If a friend tells you to look for a familiar store or restaurant at a specific corner, you're going to see it."

The data-gathering process consists of a two-person team that steers the camera-equipped van down roads, including highways and city streets, and snaps pictures along the way, according to IDG.

Belgians Stijn Ulenaers and Gudrun Vanlaar invited a group of journalists in Neuss, Germany, to accompany them in their Tele Atlas mobile mapping van last week on a short trip to record street data in the area, the news service reported.

The van is equipped with two PCs, two detachable hard-drives, a GPS system, gyroscope, tablet computer and mobile data card. Mounted between the driver and rider, the pen-operated tablet PC shows in separate windows what each camera is recording and can also overlay a road map of the area together with the location of the vehicle, according to IDG.

Six cameras - located on the front, side, and back of the van -- take pictures every three seconds. The cameras' wide-angle lenses are configured to produce a 360º perspective. The digital photos, along with GPS positions and odometer readings (necessary in tunnels), are stored on two master and slave 250G-byte drives, IDG reported.

The fleet of Tele Atlas vans covers around 360,000 kilometers of roads per year, generating 250T bytes of data, including 2.8 billion digital pictures. The data is compiled in Geographic Data File (GDF) format but can be converted to nearly all formats used by providers of mapping services and navigation system vendors, including TomTom International BV, Navman Europe Ltd., Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp., according to IDG.

The pictures are all sent to India where several hundred Tele Atlas employees map the images to existing road maps, aerial photographs and other road information to guarantee accuracy.

Sven Peters, Tele Atlas key account manager, told IDG that voice instructions will continue to be a key feature of next-generation navigation systems. What will change as a result of 3D maps, he said, is the quality of information that drivers receive on the navigation screen.

It's still unclear when consumers can expect to see 3D navigational maps and what they'll cost, IDG reported.

"We're busy compiling the data now but it's difficult to say when suppliers of navigation systems will want to invest in next-generation maps," Peters told IDG. "Many of them are still making good margins on their 2D systems and don't see a need right now to plunge into 3D."

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