Facebook is indeed rolling out autoplaying videos for ad units in your News Feed on both mobile and desktop, something the Wall Street Journal pegged for arrival just a little while before it was made official. The autoplaying ads follow Facebook’s trial of autoplaying non-ad video content on both the web and mobile.
The reasoning behind the decision is simple math in terms of returned value for advertising partners: Facebook claims that its autoplaying videos have seen engagement in terms of views, likes and shares on mobile and desktop increase over 10 percent versus the non autoplaying kind since it started testing them back in September.
Earlier this month, Facebook flat-out revealed in a slide deck obtained by Ad Age that its organic reach was waning, a fact which was used as a stepping off point for the sale of ads, which can drive greater brand visibility. And here it’s foregrounding the interaction metrics – there’s no doubt this is a sales pitch to advertisers, more so than a way to “continue to improve the quality of ads you see in News Feed,” as Facebook actually claims in the release.
It’s hard to imagine many users lauding Facebook for putting autoplaying ads in the News Feed, which is probably why this is rolling out to just a small test audience first. The initial pilot will feature ads for Divergent, a new movie due out next year. Videos start playing instantly when they come into view for the test group on both desktop and mobile, albeit without sound, and to stop playback you can just continue to scroll past. Facebook is looking to potentially start a video ad chain reaction by presenting you with two other video ads to choose from if you watch one all the way through, too.
It’s easy to see where this got its root: Instagram enforced autoplaying videos in its feed as mandatory back in October, and as mentioned, FB already piloted a project for non-ad content on its network to do the same. It’s awfully hard not to read both as an attempt to make autoplaying video The New Normal for users, in order to pave the way for the real payload of autoplaying video ads, which is likely to be the most material to Facebook’s business going forward.
At least FB is doing users a solid by pre-loading video ad content on mobile devices when they’re connected to Wi-Fi, instead of eating up all that bandwidth when they’re connected to more expensive and data-capped mobile network connections. And it’s a limited test, which means it could always get killed if the general reaction from users is negative enough.
TechCrunch » Social
Treadmills. They’re just so monotonous, no?
It’s a challenge to keep your mind off exhaustion or muscle fatigue, so many gym users turn to TV shows or books to distract themselves. But even that may not be enough to make exercise less of a chore for regular folk.
So Charles and Kai Huang, who are behind Guitar Hero, got the band back together and started Blue Goji. Today they’re launching Goji Play, which is a set of exercise equipment-friendly game controllers that lets you play games while on a treadmill or a bike.
“One of the things we learned back in our days working on Guitar Hero was really how great games can immerse people and inspire them,” Huang said. “And that’s not only have to fun but also to get more active. We really are all about active gaming and so after we moved on from Activision, we started to have this interest in health, fitness and wellness.”
The idea and the video below may look pretty goofy at first glance. But if you think about it or actually use the product, Goji Play ends up being a decent mental distraction.
“Most people think of workout equipment as boring and monotonous,” Huang said. “You’re basically staring at a wall for 30 to 60 minutes. So we really wanted to change that experience and make it more fun using our expertise in making great games.”
Huang is taking the same hardware-meets-software approach with this bootstrapped company. For $ 99 a set, there are two wireless game controllers, each with Velcro straps to attach them to a whole range of exercise equipment from treadmills, stationary bicycles and elliptical machines (see below).
A third piece is an activity tracker to see how quickly you’re moving, which gives more power to your characters inside games.
What you’ll need is an iPad, iPod Touch or an iPhone.
On those devices, you can access Goji Play’s library of games, which are takes on classic genres like boxing, through the Goji Play app. While you’re running on a treadmill, you can hold the two controllers and speed a ball down a runway or knock out a boxing rival (see below).
The apps aren’t limited to gaming either. There’s a Goji Reader app, which makes it easy to scroll through content and news using the game controllers. (That’s so you don’t have to constantly swipe an iPad or hold a book open while reading.)
Each unit handles multiple players, so one set works for an entire family complete with their own fitness goals, favorite games, social profiles, and more.
The company is retailing the product to consumers now on their own homepage and on Amazon, but they have some unannounced retail partnerships and it’s possible that they could work with gym chains as well.
Goji Play is bootstrapped with six people in the Bay Area and six in Austin.
TechCrunch » Social
The News Feed is about to get a lot more lively. Just days after pushing its auto-play feature for videos to all mobile users, today we spotted auto-playing videos on Facebook.com, and the company confirms to me “we’re continuing a wider rollout of in-line video on web”. Once this rollout is complete, the stage will be set for the introduction of more flashy video ads.
Until now, Facebook’s News Feed has always been still. Everything stays put as you scroll past. All videos were locked in place behind a play button, and no animated GIFs were allowed. But Facebook is putting the feed in motion for the first time with the auto-play videos.
For details on exactly how it works and feels, check out my deep dive on auto-play for mobile and Facebook’s aspirations to become more video-centric. On the web, auto-play makes it so videos uploaded directly to Facebook and videos shared from Instagram begin to play as soon as you scroll over them. They’ll keep playing even as you scroll around, though they stay silent unless you click/tap them, in which case the audio plays. The videos don’t loop, and YouTube or other external videos that appear in the feed as previews of links don’t auto-play at all, giving Facebook-hosted videos an advantage.
The feature was previously being tested on the web with a very small group of users after Facebook revealed it was starting experiments with auto-play on mobile in September. It’s currently rolling it out to everyone on iOS and Android, and Facebook is now finalizing a design for the web as it pushes it out wider there. You can see what an auto-play video looks like in action in the screenshot below, courtesy of Jeff Widman from Unified.
Auto-play could give Facebook-owned Instagram’s video feature a boost. People are more likely to share videos if they get seen, and auto-play basically assures that.
GIFs? Ads? The Facebook Channel?
Perhaps once auto-play video is available to everyone, Facebook might start allowing animated GIFs, as they wouldn’t stick out so bad. Mike Isaac of AllThingsD reports that Facebook has had GIF support built for a while but has hesitated to roll it out. Facebook may have been worried that GIFs of “low-quality memes”, a content type it’s trying to downplay, would overrun the feed. It could potentially mitigate that by only rendering the animations in-line if the GIFs were uploaded natively like with videos that auto-play, and not if they’re hosted elsewhere and linked to.
With viewing of individual videos improved, I bet we’ll see Facebook revamp its mobile video capture and sharing tools relatively soon. It might also look to provide a better way to discover and watch multiple videos, maybe with a lean-back sort of channel for watching back-to-back videos from friends.
But what the world is waiting for, or worried about depending on your perspective, is more aggressive video ads on Facebook. Once auto-play video is available to everyone across devices, Facebook may have all its ducks in a row to introduce auto-play video ads.
Marketers may love it if the price is right, because it will let them communicate with customers in a much richer way than photos and text. Advertisers might be able to repurpose the ads they shoot for television to fit Facebook, and could shift spend from TV commercials to Facebook.
Users may hate it because many simply hate ads all together. Personally, seeing movie trailers or Super Bowl-quality commercials in my News Feed doesn’t seem so bad as long as they don’t immediately auto-play with sound and I can scroll past or x out of them. If they act as roadblocks forcibly delaying me from viewing updates from friends, though, I might be pissed too.
No matter the format, Facebook will have to do a careful job balancing the frequency with which video ads are shown, so I’d expect a slow, cautious rollout with lots of testing.
Content Consumption At Lightning Speed
If Facebook can make auto-play video feel like a natural part of the feed, it could unlock a new level of proficiency in consuming the world.
Auto-play could give us quick windows into our friends lives that are almost as easy to skim as photos but much more evocative. News outlets could serve up footage from major events happening around the world or recent sports highlights. Imagine watching an epic interception returned for a touchdown silently filling you feed with a remarkable athletic achievement that you might not have clicked and waited to load, but you’re happy to see. And if you want to hear the hits and announcer’s commentary, one click and it’s like you’re watching television.
And that might be the goal of Facebook video. To combine the vividness of TV with the efficiency of reading.
TechCrunch » Social
FB could look a lot more like TV soon. While Vine and Instagram Video are booming, you don’t see many people natively uploading videos to Facebook. But now Facebook is bringing auto-play for native videos to all users after testing the feature in September. And it’s just the beginning of a huge push to put Facebook in motion.
Previously, any video uploaded to Facebook directly or shared to the News Feed from Instagram would appear the same as YouTube videos — locked behind a play button. While the conscious decision to stop scrolling for, open the video player, wait for it to load, and watch might not seem like a big deal, it may have been too much of a time and effort investment for some. If people don’t watch videos, they don’t get likes and comments that encourage friends to upload more, and they might skip uploading them themselves.
But after spotting an auto-play video in my feed yesterday and asking Facebook, the company confirms the new format is now internationally rolled out to most iOS and Android users and will reach all of them soon. Facebook tells me it’s still testing this feature on desktop and doesn’t have schedule for when it will roll out there.
On mobile, auto-play gives natively uploaded Facebook videos and ones shared from Instagram an advantage: you don’t have to think about playing them, they play themselves. At first they’ll play in-line even as you scroll, but with no sound. If you tap them, they expand full-screen and the audio kicks in. Videos uploaded to third-party sites retain the old click-to-play-format.
I’ve found the new design to be quite pleasing. As I wrote when Facebook’s auto-play style was first unveiled, it feels a bit like the moving photos in the Harry Potter newspapers.
If you don’t want to watch, you can scroll by with little disruption. This isn’t Myspace, Vine, or Instagram where auto-play sound is suddenly going to bombard everyone around you. If you’re not sure if you want to watch, you get a little preview. Maybe the thumbnail was dull but motion shows the video is actually exciting. A little animated audio levels icon clues you in to there being sound to be heard, though. You can watch silently if you don’t have headphones or privacy, but if you want the full experience, you can tap and the video plays instantly without a loading delay.
To respect users who don’t want to burn data, Facebook has added a setting that lets you only auto-play videos if you’re on WiFi and not on cellular data. It’s found in your phone’s Facebook settings on iOS and the Facebook app’s settings on Android.
Facebook With Commercials
When Facebook started testing auto-play, it was upfront about looking for ways to give the feature to marketers as well as users. It wrote “At first, this feature will be limited to videos posted by individuals, musicians, and bands. We’re doing this to make sure we create the best possible experience. Over time, we’ll continue to explore how to bring this to marketers in the future.” I would bet we’re going to hear some news about this soon, either just before or after the New Year.
Facebook recently starting letting developers put videos in their app install ads, but those don’t auto-play. Maybe they will eventually, though.
For advertisers, auto-play videos could make their ads a lot more noticeable. Most people wouldn’t volunteer to watch a video ad (cool movie trailers aside), but if it’s already playing and looks compelling, they might watch or even expand it to include sound too. Facebook is a fan of consistency, so video ads might have a very similar user experience to organic videos.
Because they’re more captivating, Facebook could potentially charge a lot to show video ads. Back in September, AdAge reported Facebook could charge between $ 1 million and $ 2.4 million to distribute a 15-second video ad for a day. Facebook raked in $ 2.02 billion in Q3 2013, and video ads could give that number a significant bump in Q1 and Q2 2014. Finally, we might start to see a landslide of ad spend previously devoted to television coming online, as the Facebook format would be relatively familiar (though possibly with no sound unless clicked).
The question remains whether users will freak out about video ads. Comments on my last piece about them and general sentiment has been quite wary of what video ads will do to the Facebook experience. If they’re the most eye-catching things on the social network, they could seem quite annoying. AdAge says Facebook might cap video ads so users don’t see more than three a day. Striking the right balance will be critical, though surprisingly, Facebook found that showing static photo ads in the News Feed hasn’t had a significant negative impact on engagement.
And if you’re thinking to yourself, “AdBlock Plus, bro”, that’s up to you. Personally, I think ads are the lifeblood of innovation, funding free products we rely on. But they’re a nuisance unless well-targeted, so hopefully Facebook can keep video ads relevant to the viewer. Otherwise I’d expect a lot of people to look for ways to banish them from their feed.
The secret to making people swallow video ads might be getting them to shoot mini-movies themselves. If there were more user generated videos on the site, the ads would blend in.
The problem is, right now Facebook’s video creation tool is painfully outdated. Unlike its Instagram Video product, there’s no way to shoot multiple shots in a single video, no editing, no stabilization, no cover image, and no filters. That means videos shot with Facebook often look pretty crummy. Crummy videos get few likes, so people don’t shoot them, so no one sees them, so no one thinks to shoot them…
It’s time for Facebook to modernize its video creation tool.
It could easily port in the Instagram Video features, maybe with a better tagging interface since Facebook is more about friends. It also has patents on some pretty futuristic video technologies like recording video as soon as your camera is open, recognizing and tagging faces or locations, and detecting audio and visual cues like saying “that’s beautiful” to select a cover image thumbnail or create anchors for navigating around within a video while watching.
These features could make it much more fun to shoot and view Facebook videos, which could fill the feed with them and camouflage the video ads.
And even if the native creation tools stay the same, a better watching interface could make a big difference. Right now there’s no real way to discover and watch Facebook videos in bulk. A Facebook “channel” that showed your friends’ videos back-to-back (perhaps with clips from Pages and advertisers mixed in) could be an addictive lean-back experience. Better video viewing could pit Facebook in more direct competition with YouTube.
So basically, Facebook has a huge opportunity to step up its video…game, and auto-play on mobile is just the first step. Photos fueled Facebook’s popularity back in its early days. As it turns 10 years old in 2014, we’ll see if video can give it a second wind.
[Image Credit: BGR]
TechCrunch » Social
US retailers had a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving weekend as consumers turned their attention from family dinners to good deals, driving mobile sales to record highs. According to just released statistics from Adobe, "consumers took full advantage of their mobile devices to shop on Thanksgiving Day and ‘omnishop’ while in stores on Black Friday," triggering back-to-back billion dollar shopping days.
Venture capitalist criticises the UK regulator for its rules on crowdfunding, saying the proposal will hold back the potential of small investors
Financial Times - Entrepreneurship
Last week, Om Malik at GigaOm reported that Instagram was working on a messaging feature to complement its already very-popular social photo app, now with some 150 million monthly active users. Now we've caught wind of something that could point to a possible feature on this would-be messaging product: @instagram.com email addresses.
A source who works in marketing for an e-commerce company has emailed us a list of such @instagram.com email addresses. They appeared, she says, as part of a request she made of one of the many companies out there that compiles data from social networking sites.
She says that part of the results consisted of Twitter handles and Facebook email addresses, and it seems as if the @instagram.com addresses appeared as part of that list.
“We requested verified email addresses for the followers of a certain fan club on Twitter and received back these results,” she wrote in an email. “We use [the data provider] as a tool for gathering information, and suddenly A LOT of the email fields were being filled in with Instagram email addresses.”
(I'm intentionally keeping out the names of the users, the marketing exec, her e-commerce company, and that of the data provider.)
The data provider, which uses a number of different APIs to populate its database, says that it had never seen these Instagram email addresses before. A spokesperson for Instagram declined to comment for this story.
So what might be going on here?
It could be a pure database fluke. I've been sending messages to the list of email addresses on the list provided by our source, and I've also tried out my own would-be Instagram email based on my own user ID. They have all come back to me with “too many hops” error messages. Too many hops can indicate an endless forwarding loop, or too many servers involved in relaying a message, but not necessarily that the address does not exist.
On the other hand, Instagram email addresses could support Om's claim that a messaging service is on the horizon. (His report noted that messaging features, which could be person-to-person or may include group messaging, will be in the next version of the app, expected before the end of the year.)
For starters, look to Instagram's owner, Facebook. There is something instructive here in how Facebook has built its own messaging services that Instagram may have gleaned.
The world's largest social network saw as far back as 2010 the usefulness of having a native email address integrated with a messaging service. It means making that messaging service more useful, but it also means more ways of keeping people on your own platform. So, when Facebook unveiled its revamped messaging system in 2010, it included the option for users to create @facebook.com email addresses.
Sending messages to that @facebook.com email address then automatically sync up with Facebook's messaging platform, which also aggregate messages sent to you by SMS (if you have a phone number associated with your account); Facebook's standalone Messenger app; or Facebook itself.
“This is not an email killer. This is a messaging experience that includes email as one part of it,” Zuckerberg said at the time. “This is the way that the future should work.”
Instagram, in a way, has already laid some groundwork for using email on its platform. You share photos by default to your Instagram stream, but you can additionally send them to specific people via email.
Other developers, meanwhile, have already shown the way forward for what an Instagram messaging service might do. Instachat, InstaMessage and InstaDM are among those that are standalone apps that let you send direct messages to your Instagram contacts.
Giving users on the Instagram network native email addresses could make the process of sending directly to individuals more seamless and integrated to the bigger platform. It could also be a way for those recipients of your emailed images a way to respond back to you.
Facebook, it should also be pointed out, has actually already started to create a link between Instagram and direct messaging: an update to Facebook's Messenger app in August let users access their Instagram libraries to send messages to friends. A first step for Instagram messenger, as it were, and a way of offering more picture-messaging services to a public that has demonstrated and appetite for the feature, courtesy of new hits like Snapchat and a host of apps with a image-first focus.
We have seen much written about the big opportunity in messaging services (one recent, strong example here).
Instagram has proven to be the king of photo apps when it comes to social, open consumption, so it seems natural that it, too, would eventually sprout its own private communications channel, to tap into that opportunity as well.
But while Instagram sprouted up at a time when there was little in the way of its growth, times are different today. Services like WhatsApp - at an average of 15 billion messages per day as of November - are now pushing close to SMS's 20 billion/day messaging dominance.
Focusing on sending photos and video that disappear soon after they are sent, Snapchat is not quite that big - the last number Snapchat revealed, earlier this month, was 400 million messages received (not sent) each day. But it is tapping into a key, young segment of consumers, who (at least for the moment) like to use it, a lot.
Between that rock and hard place of apps attracting people to totally new features (ephemeral messages), and those that have become heavyweights in more text-based mobile messaging (SMS, WhatsApp, Instagram's owner Facebook, and many more), whether Instagram will be able to wedge its own 150-million MAU presence into the scene - with email addresses or without - remains to be seen.
(My informal straw poll points to some early resistance to the concept, but as Twitter co-founder Biz Stone once famously said, it could end up being “The messaging system we didn't know we needed until we had it.”)
TechCrunch » Social
Stan Shih’s return from retirement to chair ailing computer maker Acer is the latest in a series of founder comebacks. Investors have usually gained
Financial Times - Entrepreneurship
It's been a couple of weeks since the last CrunchWeek, the TechCrunch TV show that brings a few writers together to chat about some of the most buzzed-about tech news stories from the past seven days. Did you miss us? We missed you. How's everything going? There is so much to catch up on!
In this episode, Josh Constine, Ryan Lawler and I discussed Snapchat reportedly rebuffing a $ 3 billion acquisition offer from Facebook, the launch of Shots Of Me, an app for taking and sharing selfies that counts Justin Bieber as an investor, and how tech IPOs are back in a big way.
okia is preparing to become a very different animal. The company whose name is still synonymous with mobile phones in certain parts of the world will - barring a last-minute bout of nerves from the company board - hand off its devices & services unit to Microsoft early next year in exchange for $ 7.2 billion. Which means that in 2014 Nokia is going to have both the time and the money to refocus its efforts elsewhere - and one key area for the future of the company, indeed one of only three remaining business units at Nokia, is maps & location services, under its HERE brand.
No surprise, then, that Nokia is revving up its engines in the location space. Notably, it's fully integrated the digital mapping giant Navteq - which it acquired way back in 2007, but was running as an independent business up until last year.
On its earnings conference call last month it also talked up the prospects for HERE to compete with Google Maps, and win new business in consumer facing use-cases such as on mobile devices. It's also revving HERE's engines literally, with a plan to triple the number of cars it has wearing down rubber mapping new roads and places, and doing the ongoing map maintenance required to keep the data fresh.
Nokia's HERE business sub-divides into three main divisions - its consumer-facing offering (of which Microsoft is among its top three customers); a b2b/enterprise play, where it works with customers such as Oracle, by, for instance, helping them track their flow of goods to better understand their own businesses; and a very big automotive business, built upon its Navteq acquisition and its turn-by-turn navigation specialism.
The automotive segment is currently the largest of HERE's divisions - as you'd expect, given how much Nokia spent on buying its way into the market when it purchased Navteq, for $ 8.1 billion. Globally, four out of five cars with dashboard navigation are using Nokia's maps. (“Basically every major car company is working with us, at some level,” it says.)
Across all HERE's division, Nokia's maps licensing and location data platform business has “hundreds” of customers.
From static to suggestive
This week Nokia was showing off one of its new-look HERE cars, pictured above, to U.K. journalists, giving live demos of the street-level mapping technology. The flagship tech on show here is the 3D mapping technology it acquired from Earthmine this time last year. Nokia is using this to compete with Google Street View in urban areas but also, more broadly, as the foundation for evolving HERE beyond the legacy Navteq specialism of turn-by-turn navigation.
Building more dynamic and interactive 3D maps is where Nokia sees the future for HERE, says Stuart Ryan, director of Maps and Everyday Mobility at Nokia. A smart, personalised, context-aware location cloud platform may also represent the future for Nokia's business, post-mobile phones.
It's about trying to reinvent and redefine the whole concept of what it is to see and visualise and interact with a map.
What kind of maps is it aiming to build? “Immersive, living, rich” maps that draw on multiple content sources and applications and change based on context, or display data in new and playful ways, says Ryan. Maps that also ”know and understand you, and suggest things for you”.
“Maps behave, react, inform in a way that's very, very relevant and personal to you,” he tells TechCrunch. ”The challenge our boss gives us is redesign the maps experience for consumers.”
One example he brings up to illustrate Nokia's thinking here is map of a city that's transformed from being a realistic digital representation into an abstracted data visualisation that emphasises certain characteristics of the city's makeup, and/or creates something that looks visually arresting, and is even purposefully un-map-like.
Another scenario he talks about is when visitors to a city want to know where local equivalents for places in their home town can be found - so, in other words, they're after a map that can show them where “the uptown version of Chicago in Berlin is”, for example.
“It's got to go from being a very largely static experience, granted built on turn-by-turn navigation, into a much more interactive and suggestive type of experience,” he says. “That's where it's going.”
Nokia's Earthmine vs Google Street View
It was too dark in London's low-light winter environs to take the HERE car for a spin when TechCrunch checked it out, but the driver showed the system working in the garage. Nokia's Ryan was also on hand to answer questions.
Nokia's HERE fleet is not doing all the mapping itself. The company has multiple sources for its maps, and even obtains some mapping data via community (crowdsourcing) contributions to augment the rubber on the tarmac approach, although Ryan stressed that it has teams checking mapping data submissions to ensure their quality, where possible. It also draws in other third party sources, such as data from government agencies.
The HERE car driver showing off the kit inside the demo car had recently been mapping the North East of England, and said he's typically out from 7:45 a.m. to 3:45 p.m.-4:45 p.m., depending on weather and light conditions. He typically covers around 200 miles a day.
The hard drive in the car - which was sited on the front seat, inside the processing unit - holds a terabyte of data. After around a week's worth of driving 64% of it had been filled.
The HERE car's modular rig, which is mounted on the roof, contains a LiDar sensor which captures the 3D data - grabbing objects and textures as the car moves along the road - by sending out signals that bounce back to build up a “3D point cloud”.
“This is what creates a 3D digital representation of the world around us,” says Ryan. “It's all managed as an X, Y, Z point so we have the location and height information… It's similar to laser and sonar, those kinds of technologies. It's based on light pulses and then when it comes back in we just store the location. And we create a composite view, then, of the real-world in a 3D construct. “
Here's an example of the street level imagery being captured by Nokia's rig:
And while, on the surface, Nokia's street level view may look much like Google's Street View, Nokia argues that because its technology captures 3D data rather than just taking static photographs, it offers a superior foundation for transforming the basic digital map canvas - by allowing for both new types of content and new ways of interacting with maps to be introduced.
“A static image product has a lot of limitations in terms of the utility it provides,” says Ryan when asked how Nokia's tech stacks up against Street View. He also says the imagery captured by Nokia's cameras is “higher accuracy, higher resolution, higher quality” than Google's Street View cameras, adding: “Which is part of the reason why we invested in the Earthmine technology”.
What he's not so quick to point out is that Nokia's street level mapping coverage is far less comprehensive than Google's Street View - Nokia is focusing street level mapping on metropolitan and urban areas, whereas Google, with five+ years of rubber in the game already, generally prefers to cover whole countries, as the below coverage map illustrates:
So when Nokia says it has mapped close to 200 countries, it's talking specifically about road-level mapping, not the street level 3D data. It's unclear exactly how extensive Nokia's street level mapping is at this point - Nokia has previously said the HERE cars will be visiting 27 countries this year – but even in Europe and North America where Nokia kicked off its 3D mapping effort coverage is selective, targeted on urban centres.
Nokia justifies that selective coverage by arguing that street level mapping is more relevant to urban areas where population density is highest - so, in the short term at least, HERE's Earthmine technology looks set to snub the roads less well-travelled.
But if you can't compete on quantity vs your biggest rival, there's always quality. And/or doing something new and different.
Maps that push and pull
“Our team is looking at the utility around how do you make the map more living, more real, more relevant to people - in terms of being able to provide more detail, and make the panoramas around you and buildings around you more relevant in terms of if you think about orientation and guidance,” says Ryan.
“But also… this [Earthmine technology] will allow us to make the map in and of itself more of a canvas and an interface - so we want to get away from the legacy of put something in a search box or a text box and actually scroll the map, select objects on the map, make them reveal things to you and go from there.
“Because everything we have is actually a data model, and not a static image, that allows us to do an awful lot of these use-cases.”
Introducing new “use-cases” to its maps is on the cards for Nokia “later next year”, according to Ryan. Fleshing out those use-cases a little further he lists the following: “truer 3D rendering of what's around you; making things much more interactive; allowing for certain things to render in certain ways - they could be very, very detailed, or they could be a little bit more occluded”.
Another feature he discusses is transitions - i.e. being able to move map users through a 3D view that takes in aerial imagery and moves down through different levels of detailed 3D content, before they arrive at street level. The aim being to wow users, with both the design and the feel of moving around the map.
He also talks about allowing users to explore cities via maps in a more tactile way using a 3D mapping canvas that lets them touch a building to see what it is, rather than having to type something into a text box or click around on rails. “You don't click an action to route to… you just click on the building itself to route to,” he explains.
The HERE car's modular mapping rig could also potentially be attached to other types of vehicles, according to Ryan - even something that's airborne. “If there's a way that we can find to mount this technology on the right kind of vehicle, can we also capture aerial imagery? Can we do other things as well? So it's extensible in terms of how we can use it.
“Our view is on this you differentiate on this more through actually making richer, deeper, interactive, immersive experiences with the map and really evolve how people think about a 2D or a 3D map. That's the aspiration for us,” he continues.
“It's about trying to reinvent and redefine the whole concept of what it is to see and visualise a map, and interact with a map. That's what no one has solved so far.”
From HERE Cars To Driverless Cars
As well as the LiDar sensor, the rig on Nokia's HERE cars carries a GPS sensor, and a Street View-esque camera that snaps the view from four sides so it can piece the visual scenery back together with the 3D mesh to colour in that data.
The other sensor on board the rig is called an IMU - aka an inertia measurement unit - which captures detailed road characteristics, such as the degree of incline or bend, which Nokia then sells back to customers in the automotive sector to improve their own in-car systems.
“This is a very automotive-centric sensor,” says Ryan of the IMU. “So it's got an accelerometer, gyroscope, it helps understand direction of travel, velocity of the vehicle, but also very, very important for understanding things like slope of a road, curve information, gradient, for products and use cases around ADAS: advanced driver assistance systems.
“So when you think about things like lane departure warnings, adaptive cruise control, curve warnings and use cases around fuel efficiency and route optimisation - and in essence building the foundation for how we think about automated or autonomous driving, that's one key thing that a sensor like this contributes.”
Nokia announced a partnership with Mercedes-Benz back in September to work on developing driverless car technology, noting at the time:
The requirements put on maps by autonomous driving go beyond what has been available until now. The very exact precision of lane width, road sign locations and other road network attributes are all crucial components needed to provide routing for autonomous vehicles. This is an area Mercedes-Benz and HERE will continue to explore together, as automakers and HERE spearhead the innovation for future commercial autonomous vehicles.
There's no time-frame on when such a car could make it to market - and in any case, the technical challenges of building self-driving cars are matched by huge legal and regulatory hurdles that stand just as tall, if not even taller barriers to commercialisation. So developing guidance systems to help steer self-driving cars is definitely a long-term play for Nokia; the road HERE's automotive business unit may ultimately end up travelling along one day.
In the meantime Nokia sees plenty of areas where it can more gradually extend the HERE platform's capabilities in the automotive sector - so that it gets even smarter about assisting drivers by collating and redistributing more relevant real-time data.
“There's a number of projects and discussions we're having with major OEMs, major car companies around this,” says Ryan. “A lot is happening in that area. Basically as all of these sensors [on the HERE car], plus potentially other sensors within the vehicle, continue to tag and have user information we can use that to feed back to a platform or service… and be able to aggregate that and deliver that back in the form of some value-add service to people.
“One example… [might be] if you're on the motorway and a car is 25 miles ahead but all of a sudden its windshield wipers start going, if you could signal that back to a platform, you could signal back to the car behind you that it's raining ahead. So all kinds of things.”
Of course, that example would require car makers to add the necessary sensors to windscreen wipers. But Nokia has various other data sources feeding into HERE's network already - such as traffic data from enterprise customers with large delivery fleets, and anonymised data gathered from its own maps and mobile users - which it refers to as “probe data”. (You can bet the deal with Microsoft to buy Nokia's devices & services division requires that this pipeline of probes remains open to HERE.)
Maps made of multiple data sources
One area Ryan mentions where probe data could be used to augment Nokia's maps with useful, contextual information is by gathering real-time transit data - i.e. where public transport networks don't make that data openly available.
“We can build estimated schedules based on the lines, the length of the journey between stops, the speed of the train and then we get timetable data,” he says. “The next thing people want to understand is interrupted service, delays, real-time information for transit as well so getting user feedback for that kind of content is interesting.”
Probe data also feeds back into the HERE business in another way: to help Nokia identify when a new road has been built that it needs to send a car out to map. Or to build “heat maps” of activity based on where people are doing map searches and how they are using other Nokia apps (some of which are available on iOS and Android, expanding Nokia's reach beyond its own legacy/Microsoft's mobile platforms).
You could call it Nokia's very own inner Foursquare.
“We actually use [probe data] on our map assets. You can see how we think about activity heat-maps - where the most interesting places and restaurants and POIs are in a city or an area are,” says Ryan.
Probe data, third party data sources, community-contributions and Nokia's own Earthmine-equipped cars all feed their intel into the HERE platform - Nokia says it uses 80,000 different sources to layer content into its maps. The blood, if you like, that is being pumped through HERE's digital veins to animate increasingly dynamic maps.
How competitive that data set is vs the Mountain View-sized hoard that Google's mapping business rests on top of is of course a key question.
Looking at the competitive landscape
Nokia says it is planning to have a fleet of “hundreds” of HERE cars on the road by the end of 2014. It won't be more specific about exactly how many cars it has, driving around hoovering up the topology. Google also won't put a figure on its Street View fleet, saying only that it's driven more than five million miles of unique road since kicking off the project in 2007.
As with Google's fleet, Nokia's HERE cars are driving around all the time - a necessity to keep its maps updated, and also to expand street level mapping coverage to better compete with Google.
This never-ending process is clearly a huge cost base for HERE, along with the unit's 6,000-strong headcount. Nokia's operating expenses for HERE were €153 million in Q3 this year, which is small relative to other divisions of the business but bear in mind that those divisions are involved in manufacturing hardware vs HERE being a software-focused unit.
There's a lot of blood in the water with Google around, and other players as well, but there's huge upside in terms of where the location area is going - and nobody's really solved it yet.
Focusing HERE's street level mapping coverage on cities/towns is one way Nokia can cap the costs associated with gathering the more sophisticated 3D data - while being able to innovate on the technology and software side to produce more dynamic and interactive maps for those urban centres in future. And, so Nokia hopes, steal some of Street View's thunder.
In the automotive sector, Nokia primarily competes with TomTom right now, although Ryan concedes that Google is looking to get a “stronger footing” in that industry - so there's certainly a sense that the company is checking itself about getting complacent. And that's not surprising, given the painful lessons of its recent history. Nokia's mobile business went from being king of the world circa 2007 to also-ran a handful of years later, having watched Google's Android platform spread like a pandemic from a standing start in 2008 to the circa 80% marketshare of today.
Ryan is also not complacent when it comes to location startups - name-checking Waze as one example of a startup that managed to build significant momentum, with a crowdsourced traffic data platform, and which was of course ultimately acquired by Google.
“The opportunity for disruptors to come along is to solve that hidden use-case or that unmet need. The company that can combine a lot of what we do, and Google go, and Foursquare do, and Facebook do in a location cloud experience is the winning strategy, and that's why it's the strategy that we're pursuing,” he says.
That means Nokia's challenge, as a long-time player in the location space, is to take a step back from the turn-by-turn/navigation business it knows so well, through Navteq, and allow HERE to become more mobile and social, to be “more about solving more everyday life problems”, as Ryan puts it. “That is where there is an awful lot of untapped opportunity within maps and location.”
“We recognise there's a lot of blood in the water with Google around, and other players as well, but there's huge upside in terms of where the location area is going - and nobody's really solved it yet,” he adds.
With its phone-making days behind it, Nokia wants to plant its flag afresh on the location map - with a banner that reads not just HERE today; here to stay.
TechCrunch » Social