Of all the things Apple unveiled at its annual developers conference this summer, the Flyover feature of its Maps application, where users zip around a three-dimensional city skyline, elicited maybe the most applause. But what if you could actually fly through the city at street level?
Hover, a startup based in Los Altos, California, just eight miles from Apple’s headquarters, is developing just that kind of virtual jetpack for exploring a digital map. The company sells software to government agencies, but may start offering mobile apps to consumers in the next couple years.
The 20-person company closed a $3.1 million round of financing in October, which was not previously disclosed, according to executives. Investors include Almaz Capital, De Anda Capital and McKenna Management.
The 3-D aerial views deployed by Apple and Google are a nice parlor trick, but they aren’t all that practical for navigating a town, said Kevin Reilley, who joined Hover as chief executive officer last month. “While that aerial imagery is great for some things, it doesn’t represent the way that people interact with the world.”
As the two largest smartphone software makers, along with a Nokia-Microsoft tag team, fight for users, digital mapping is a key battleground. For the Apple and Google features, the companies paid to have spy planes flown over cities capturing footage, according to a Congressman’s letter.
Hover’s costs are relatively inexpensive, said Geoffrey Baehr, a parter at investor Almaz Capital. The company can create 3-D street-level maps from flat overhead imagery, and refine them using crowd-sourced photos, he said.
“The accuracy depends on the cleverness of the algorithms, and is independent of the particular sensors that we use,” Baehr said in an interview. “3-D mapping technology that requires you to fly special cameras or special airplanes or to use specialized secret sauce that no one else knows about? That’s a nonstarter.”
Hover currently sells its software to the U.S. government and plans to find corporate customers next year. It will start by mapping areas based on customers’ needs — for example, a military base or a utility company’s power grid — rather than trying to cover the entire world, Reilley said. The startup expects to offer a product directly to consumers as soon as 2014, he said.
Hover was founded last year by a U.S. NAVY Seal and a Marine, who helped broker the deals with the Defense Department, Reilley said. A year ago, the startup brought on Ed Lu, who had worked on mapping projects at Google including Street View. Before that, he was an astronaut at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, having spent 206 days in space.
As Reilley described the smartphone’s ability to crunch the data needed to lay out vast cityscapes, he consulted Lu on a technical question. “Ed, you probably know. The processing power in these phones is probably the same as the machines that put us on the moon in the 60s.”
Lu chuckled. “It’s a lot more than that.”