A new location revolution is underway, and it’s coming quickly. The flat, 2D location-based services that we’re all used to are about to be surpassed by a richer, 3D world which reflects the world around us. Tapping into the detail of buildings and urban areas will transform how we think about location, with enormous implications for customer experience, public safety, gaming, and much more.
By contrast, the first location revolution took decades to achieve critical mass. Just think about all of the different building blocks used by today’s location apps – GPS satellites, mobile telephony, mapping applications, high speed data connections, data processing in the cloud. Most of these critical elements were perfected over the course of many years. Integrating them into the cohesive solution we know as “location services” took even longer.
As with the first time around, the 3D location evolution will require an ecosystem of various technological elements to gain critical mass. Calculation of an altitude measurement is a foundational step – one that has itself been a long time coming. Yet we see that altitude measurement as a foundation for something bigger, not an end in and of itself. It’s these other pieces – the surrounding ecosystem – that are rapidly coming together.
Here’s an overview of the location system services and components which are necessary for the leap from 2D to 3D, and how we’re working to bring them all together.
With a founding team that played a critical role in bringing GPS to mobile phones, this one’s particularly close to our heart. Adding vertical location to the mix requires barometric sensors, which are now standard equipment in most smart phones and tablets. Incorporating barometric sensors into wearables and other IoT devices of all shapes and sizes will expand the reach of vertical location even further.
NextNav worked directly with device makers and component manufacturers over the years to bring barometric sensors into the mainstream. Now we’re helping to improve data quality and standardize performance of barometric sensors through our NextNav Certified program.
The next evolution of 3D-enabled hardware for location services will come through our TerraPoiNT solution, which serves as a resilient position, navigation and timing (PNT) layer alongside existing GPS solutions. When GPS chipsets are modified to support adjacent signal bands, NextNav will deliver accurate 3D location with a deeper reach into buildings and urban areas where GPS signals are usually unavailable.
NextNav’s network of altitude stations already covers 4,400 cities, reaching over 90% of buildings over three stories in the United States. As the reach and performance of this network matures, we expect that new use cases for 3D location services will emerge. These new use cases will drive additional expansion, turning today’s innovative new capabilities into something that we all come to expect.
NextNav already offers an SDK and a Unity Plug-In for developers to integrate vertical location into mobile applications. Our recently announced partnership with Gimbal makes that SDK available through a service used by thousands of apps. Additional options such as an API and Unreal Engine Plug-In will open up vertical location to an even broader audience.
It’s not enough to know how high up you are. For vertical location to be truly useful, that raw measurement has to be placed into context, translating location data into a user experience. There’s a lot of new ground to cover in this area, and NextNav is leading the way.
Earlier this year, we released an altimeter feature which bridges the gap between 2D maps and 3D data. By providing a framework for users to experience vertical location within the mapping infrastructure of existing mobile apps, the altimeter acts as a preview of how a 3D world will evolve from our current user experience.
The next step will be to transform the 2D maps which currently dominate our experience with location services into a fully 3D user experience. Several companies are currently working on pieces of this. Google recently rolled out new AR and indoor location features which will ease wayfinding. HERE is creating new ways to view and experience 3D location data through a partnership with Unity.
NextNav is working with multiple partners to influence and build out the visualization aspect of 3D location services. We recognize that addressing the fundamental questions about how users experience 3D geolocation will require multiple players and probably quite a bit of experimentation before a standardized, market-proven solution emerges.
Unlike the 2D location services we depend on today, there’s no comprehensive database of places for vertical location. Without the equivalent of Google Street View for buildings, underground spaces, and complicated urban streetscapes, it will be difficult to build out reliable wayfinding, accurate visualizations, and recognizable context for users to interact with.
Municipal governments are starting to fill the gap with “digital twin” programs, in which detailed building plans are made available for public use. Digital twin programs will play a key role in populating a world of 3D location information, but inconsistent coverage, patchy access to data, and lack of standardization naturally limit the value of digital twin as a data source. A more comprehensive, standardized, and accessible data source is needed to bring 3D location services up to the standard we currently enjoy.
NextNav is working with a variety of providers to start fleshing out the underlying data infrastructure needed to enable location services for a 3D future. As vertical location begins to permeate different corners of the location world, we believe that more comprehensive device location data sets will emerge to fill this gap, much as they did with 2D location.