3D mapping is a technology that’s perpetually on the horizon. We’ve seen various flavors over the years such as Microsoft Virtual Earth 3D, and of course Google Earth and Street View. These have each scratched the 3D itch in various ways, but we still haven’t reached the holy grail.

Speaking of Google Earth, its VR edition is an immersive dive into 3D cities around the world. But its advantage is also its drawback: VR. The addressable market is only so big, due to an installed base that’s limited to about 14 million units according to our research arm ARtillery Intelligence.

As we examined recently, Here Technologies has also jumped on the 3D mapping train with a developer platform for building immersive 3D maps. Possible outcomes include everything from consumer-facing local search apps to enterprise property management to municipal planning.

Will 3D Cities Unlock Immersive Experiences?

Step Forward

All of this took a step forward last week — including an additional social twist — with the launch of Realworld. The multi-user immersive mapping app is built for VR headsets and brings users to various 3D city renderings so that they can interact with each other and with physical spaces.

This includes the ability to transport to and socialize amidst 3D cityscapes. Users can scale graphics up and down dynamically to see different zoom levels or angles of any street or building. They can also annotate 3D maps as part of the social and collaborative use cases intended.

Speaking of use cases, potential outcomes include education (think: virtual field trips), social meetups, and local discovery. The latter could be enhanced through overlaying place databases such as Foursquare to infuse business details, store reviews, and other local search fodder.

Meanwhile, Realworld gets its underlying geospatial data from Bing Maps. Over time, it could augment that with its own data layers as user annotations and other social collaborations mentioned above are created. This geo-anchored data could have several points of value.

In fact, Realworld could use that data for location-relevant AR experiences. In other words, geo-anchored graphics that were created in Realworld VR could be subsequently viewable in those real-world spots through AR. These could be shared by creators through social permissions.

Winning Bet

One question that arises from all of the above is if Realworld can compete with Google Earth VR. Competing with Google isn’t normally a winning bet, but the company has retreated from all things VR. Google Earth VR also isn’t multiplayer and is only available on PC VR, such as HTC Vive.

Realworld will conversely play on the more accessible Oculus Quest 2. It also utilizes Quest 2’s hand tracking for input, which offers greater agency and immersion. Moreover, hand tracking could make it more intuitive and user-friendly, which could help Realworld gain traction.

When it does, virtual mapping could be a potential VR killer app given that it has the ingredients of fun, utility and social interaction. The next evolution in VR as it penetrates further into the mainstream will be just that: expanding beyond gaming to more broadly-appealing experiences.

This is one of Oculus Quest 2’s missions, which is evident in Facebook social DNA among other things. More evidence can be seen in Facebook’s investment to build a network effect and ramp up adoption through loss leader pricing for Quest 2. And signs indicate that this is working.

Meanwhile, Realworld is available in beta with a full rollout coming soon. We’ll be watching to see if it brings us any closer to 3D mapping’s promise. It could take a while for that to happen en masse, but we can still keep an eye on the horizon for VR’s evolution and expanding use cases.

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