Six months before Saab the car company went under the last time, Apple, in complete secrecy, bought a futuristic mapping spinoff from Saab the defense contractor. The secret is now out and maps on mobile devices will never be the same.
Back in 2006, Saab was running an advertising campaign called Born From Jets. This was around the time when Saab was selling a rebadged Chevrolet TrailBlazer and when its only jet-like product was the fabulously cool but totally not-for-sale Aero X. But jets and Saab were only divorced in the automotive division of the company, which General Motors had bought from Saab AB in 1990. While GM kept releasing rebadged trucks and facelifts of the ancient 9-5 sedan, Saab was busy cranking out a cornucopia of military gear like Gripen fighter jets, ramjet-powered Meteor air-to-air missiles, Carl Gustav recoilless rifles—and some very interesting mapping software.
C3 Technologies was a Saab division before it was spun off in 2007, Saab keeping a 57.8% stake. The company developed a way to create 3D color models from aerial photography, accurate to six inches (a banana in your pocket!), based on missile targeting technology. The video above shows a glossy corporate version of the process, which, as described by an article in MIT Technology Review, works like this:
C3’s models are generated with little human intervention. First, a plane equipped with a custom-designed package of professional-grade digital single-lens reflex cameras takes aerial photos. Four cameras look out along the main compass points, at oblique angles to the ground, to image buildings from the side as well as above. Additional cameras (the exact number is secret) capture overlapping images from their own carefully determined angles, producing a final set that contains all the information needed for a full 3-D rendering of a city’s buildings. Machine-vision software developed by C3 compares pairs of overlapping images to gauge depth, just as our brains use stereo vision, to produce a richly detailed 3-D model.
The company was acquired in July 2011 by an unnamed “Western company”, which turned out to be Apple, who have relied on Google Maps to power mapping software in iOS devices since the iPhone’s debut in 2007. Back then, the two companies operated in very different realms, but after Google released the Android operating system for mobile devices, they became direct competitors. If all goes according to rumor, all this sci-fi mapping will become part of the next version of a Google Maps-less iOS.
Dreams of interesting new Saabs may be gone. But perhaps we’ll be taking road trips in the near future with the aid of Saab missile targeting software. Driving Saab 900 Turbos, if one can dream. Or ramjet-powered Saab Aero X’s, if one can dream a little more.