Map Quest

By Jason Schwartz | Boston Magazine |

With outsize ambitions (and a goofy-looking car), a Waltham startup wants to photograph the world one city at a time—and out-map the big boys at Google.

In 2002, computer programmer Mok Oh founded a company on a nifty idea he came up with while studying at MIT: software that could give photographs a three-dimensional feel. Though it took a few years to figure out how to harness its potential, Oh finally did it with a website—which, like his company, is dubbed EveryScape—that he was betting would blow people away. By stitching together photos of a city’s streets, EveryScape would create searchable urban maps that users could explore as if walking through them. It was a great concept—so great, in fact, that this spring Google got into the game with a similar service called Street View. But instead of shuttering his Waltham-based startup, Oh shifted his plans into high gear and is now ready to launch. Here’s how he plans to slay his giant competitor.

New Dimension
Oh spent more than a decade programming EveryScape’s technology, which allows computers to make sense of spatial relationships among objects in photos. That capability is ideal for rendering the intricacies of city terrain. Google, by comparison, offers less dynamic images, and only allows users to pivot around a fixed point in its photographs.

Creative Drive
To get pictures for his site, Oh straps four cameras—equipped with wide-angle lenses that together cover 360 degrees—to the roof of a car. Then one of his two-person teams uses the car to putter along at 15 to 20 miles per hour, snapping photos every 50 feet. (It took about two weeks and 50,000 shots to cover Boston.)

Added Value
To further differentiate itself from Google’s Street View, EveryScape plans to build a sort of community bulletin board within its maps that allows users to, say, post reviews on restaurant photos. EveryScapers could also help render the insides of buildings by submitting their pictures—perhaps even affording a glimpse into Google’s new Cambridge digs at One Broadway.

Local Color
Compared with the two other cities Oh’s mapped so far (New York and San Francisco), Boston was the toughest. Its unpredictable weather and cow path–inspired streets slowed down the photography. So did the locals—one camera-shy Townie flipped off Oh’s cameras near the Bunker Hill Monument (he’ll be edited out).

Under Cover
When Google got bad press for using photographs that showed people in such embarrassing moments as exiting strip clubs, Oh says, it made him more aware of privacy issues. He’ll be deleting problematic scenes from his photos, and also masking locations of sensitive spots, like battered-women’s shelters. “Anything Google’s getting criticized for,” he says, “is a good learning point for us.”

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