Why Augmented Reality Is the Next Big Innovation in Mapping

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Bill Kilday from Google spinoff Niantic talks about coming innovation in mapping technology and augmented reality.

As an executive for a digital mapping technology startup in the innovation’s early days, Bill Kilday has had a front seat in the development of digital navigation that forever changed the way people travel. He was the marketing director of Keyhole, which was bought by Google and eventually gave rise to Google Maps and Google Earth. Now, he is vice president of marketing for Niantic, which was spun out of Google. The company creates augmented reality games using mapping technology such as Pokemon GO and the upcoming Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. 

In his book, Never Lost Again: The Google Mapping Revolution That Sparked New Industries and Augmented Our Reality, Kilday provides a behind-the-scenes look at how mapping technology developed. He told the Knowledge@Wharton radio show on SiriusXM that the industry is still scratching the surface on creative uses of location-based augmented reality.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

51JluXz7RqLKnowledge@Wharton: Tell us about Keyhole.

Bill Kilday: Keyhole was a startup that happened in the late 1990s. There were some technologies that were starting to converge in the late 1990s. GPS devices in phones, broadband internet access becoming commonplace and 3D graphics chips in everyday consumer PCs were starting to enable a new wave of user experiences in mapping. The company was started in 1999 by John Hanke, bought by Google in October 2004 and became the foundation layer of Google Maps and Google Earth in 2005.

Knowledge@Wharton: Back then, could you have forecasted all the innovation that has come from mapping? From real estate searches to Pokemon GO, it’s become such an integral part of our lives.

Kilday: Indeed. I think it really started with the launch of Google Maps in February 2005. Then a couple of engineers at Google, Bret Taylor and Jim Norris, launched something called the Google Maps API a few months later. That was in response to what was happening once Google Maps launched, which was web developers and software engineers were sort of reverse-engineering the Google Maps product and creating their own implementations. The first one was by a guy named Paul Rademacher, who was a DreamWorks animator, and he created a Craigslist mashup of all housing that was available in San Francisco using the Google Maps API as its foundation.

Bret Taylor and Jim Norris created the Google Maps API to enable that to be something that companies could do. Very quickly, you have a groundswell of innovation in location-based services, everything from Yelp, Strava, OpenTable, Zillow, Hotels.com — anything that had that geo component to it. Google Maps API made it very easy for those companies to get going. In fact, for the first two years of the Google Maps API existence, Google didn’t even charge for it, so it spurred a whole wave of innovation around location.

“There’s a second wave of innovation coming in mapping, and it has to do with … augmented reality.”

Knowledge@Wharton: With all the recent innovation, are we still at a tip of the iceberg for uses of this technology?

Kilday: Yes. I think there’s a second wave of innovation coming in mapping, and it has to do with the hot new tech trend of augmented reality. Pokemon GO is sort of a true north for that whole industry as the first use case. But you can imagine all these other geographic data sets, like a Yelp or a HotelTonight. Imagine holding your phone up and getting a Yelp review of the restaurant that you’re looking at through your phone, or a hotel availability with room rates over a hotel, or a bus schedule over a bus stop. There’s now a new wave of innovation coming around mashing that up into the real world in a much more intuitive way. That’s the whole trend of augmented reality that’s coming.

Knowledge@Wharton: I guess that was part of the reason why Google decided to acquire Keyhole many years ago?

Kilday: Well, I don’t know that they could have imagined the world that we’re entering into now. Google gets a lot of credit for thinking long-term about a lot of tech trends, but I think it was really the founders of the company — Sergey Brin, in particular — who were excited about the technology Keyhole produced. It was this awesome product, and they thought it could be something great. But you didn’t really know what it could be or what it could become, and I don’t know that we still know today.

Knowledge@Wharton: I would think there would be a lot of opportunities with self-driving cars. In the future, we could be making a dinner reservation from the car as we are heading out.

Kilday: The self-driving car industry is one of those industries that’s making mapping a hot area of innovation again because you’ve got to keep those roads and those road networks and all the data as up-to-date as possible. Everybody’s experienced going to a location where the store was closed or some road condition changed, so mapping companies are working hard to turn what had traditionally been a static view of the world into more of a real-world, dynamic place that is trying to keep up with the changes.

The acquisition of Waze by Google in 2012 was further acknowledgement that the world is a dynamic and changing place. Let’s take data from real users who are out in the real world about traffic incidents and road closures, get that data in real time, feed that back to Google, then stream it back out to all of Google’s maps and products in real time. Google and other companies are working very hard to keep up with those changes because you really need that for a self-driving car. You really need to know about that dead end. You really need to know about that road closure.

“There are 25 million edits to the Google mapping product being made every single day.”

The feed from Waze and other Google data sources, and the rerouting of people to take events into account, is just an amazing technological achievement. Google announced at its developer conference that there are 25 million edits to the Google mapping product being made every single day. It’s an unfathomable number. There are 7,000 people working on that team, trying to keep up with the world. It’s a monumental feat that is going behind the scenes for that super computer in your pocket.

Knowledge@Wharton: Mapping is a functional part of the Google landscape, but is it a profitable one?

Kilday: I do ask that question in the book, and I ask it of people who know a lot more about the fundamental economics of Google Maps and Google Earth. There are differing opinions. At the end of the day, after all the money that’s been invested by Google Maps and Google Earth by Larry [Page] and Sergey, the founders of the company, have Google Maps and Google Earth turned a profit for the company? I happen to think that they have not. I think that it was done because of the awesome technical challenge that the founders got excited about.

I was in enough meetings to know that they did not ask about those typical business questions about return on investment, pay-back period, break-even analysis, that sort of stuff. That’s not why they did it. They did it because it was an incredible technical challenge that they were very interested in and wanted to do because they thought it would be awesome, which is kind of amazing.

Knowledge@Wharton: It may not be a direct monetary value, but it may be a social value of having people involved in the Google ecosystem, correct?

Kilday: No doubt. When I say it hasn’t made money, I think about that on a direct basis. But we were talking about this indirect impact of Google Maps for Google in terms of its making search results better, making its ads better, making the Android operating system better and helping to market Android devices. There’s a whole host of indirect benefits to the Google mapping products that tie people into the Google ecosystem versus alternatives.

Knowledge@Wharton: Are there business sectors that are not taking advantage of mapping technology?

Kilday: You mentioned real estate. I think that it’s important to note that real estate kept Keyhole alive. We were a small, struggling startup with limited prospects that had built a product that could only be used by 10% to 15% of everyday users. Real estate uses of the product and real estate users were probably the first adopters of satellite and aerial imagery outside of the military. They were the first folks to step up and write us checks from 2001 to 2004, until Google took notice and bought the company.

“You have gamers who are not going to be at home in their mother’s basement … anymore.”

But there’s still a lot to be done in the world of real estate with satellite and aerial imagery as you move into this augmented reality world. Imagine a world in which you were going to be driving down a street and holding your phone up to a house and seeing all the data about it, the square footage, if it’s coming on the market, the property taxes, everything. For that to happen, that data has to be pinpointed with hyper precision and location accuracy. That is an area of innovation in mapping that real estate, and all kinds of new services, will emerge around that.

Travel and tourism is another opportunity. There are all kinds of rich opportunities around this mapping and augmented reality being blended together. That will be very interesting to see over the coming years, and it’s coming very fast. There are companies out there that are pursuing this. I think about a company like Foursquare, which gamified the creation of all sorts of location information but didn’t really get the traction they desired. That company now is working on their augmented reality plan and their experiences.

Knowledge@Wharton: What about the video game industry?

Kilday: The company that I work for now, Niantic, is the spin-out company. There are eight of us that were at Keyhole that are now together at Niantic. We sold Keyhole to Google and became the core team inside of Google running the Maps and Earth operation. John Hanke ran the Google Geo division for 10 years. The company spun back out of Google as part of the Alphabet reorganization in 2015 and launched Pokemon GO, which was the first example of what you could do by taking a data set and gaming characters and blending them with the real world.

There are many games to come from Niantic and from others that will take that first example of this huge success, Pokemon GO, and take other IP. Niantic is working on a Harry Potter of Pokemon GO, essentially. You’re going to be able to theme your world with Harry Potter characters and game play, and that’s going to be released before the end of 2018.

Our CEO, John Hanke, says gaming has become untethered. I like that notion that you have gamers who are not going to be at home in their mother’s basement, playing on a console game anymore. They’re going to be out in the real world playing. Whatever gaming franchise you’re more interested in, whether that’s vampires or zombies or action heroes or dinosaurs or Pokemon or Harry Potter, you’re going to be able to choose which world you want to augment your reality with.

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