Game software scores real-world mapping market

3-D technology may replace traditional maps

BY DAVID SPEAKMAN

Software originally invented for 3-D video games is increasingly being adopted by strategic planners of real estate. Mountain View-based Keyhole Inc. offers a service called EarthViewer3D that allows businesses access to an Internet-based, graphics mapping system that may replace traditional maps for many purposes.

Keyhole gained attention recently when TV networks ABC and CNN used it to illustrate battle areas in the second Gulf War.

The company spun off from video game maker Intrinsic Graphics Inc. of Mountain View in 2001 with $4.6 million in venture funding from Sony Corp.’s 550 Digital Media Ventures of San Francisco.

In 2002, graphics chip maker Nvidia Corp. of Santa Clara and Oakstone Ventures of Palo Alto participated in additional funding rounds for an undisclosed amount. Nvidia says it needs companies, such as Keyhole, to show its chips aren’t just for toys.

“There are not many examples that we can show of non-gaming applications and we saw Keyhole as a spectacular example,” says Jeff Herbst, Nvidia’s vice president of business development.

Intrinsic Graphics, Keyhole’s majority shareholder, set up the spin-off to find nongame applications for its streaming 3-D technology while using satellite images of Earth to make detailed, interactive maps.

Keyhole international marketing strategist Noah Doyle says businesses are no longer forced to look at traditional maps — mere lines on a piece of paper.

“You have this gaming technology for efficiently streaming 3-D imagery combined with a much greater graphics processing power on PCs that allows you to look at the Earth itself without having to rely on maps,” says Doyle.

Businesses are using the EarthViewer3D service. Although no specifics were given, Keyhole says financially it broke even in the first quarter of 2003.

Among Keyhole’s biggest customers are multi-state, commercial realtors and real-estate investment trusts (REITs) including The Staubach Co., CCIM Institute, Marcus & Millichap Real Estate Investment Brokerage Co., General Growth Properties Inc. and the Simon Property Group Inc.

“Our largest, single, vertical market is the real-estate industry,” says Doyle. “REITs use the product to locate buildings they may be interested in buying and to evaluate buildings in their portfolio.”

For instance, a REIT can use the 3-D imaging and overlay traffic flow, crime rates, population density and other proprietary data to evaluate pricing of properties.

Practical business use of graphics software and technology is real-world proof Nvidia’s technology is applicable beyond the joystick, Herbst says.

“Anything that we can do to promote the visibility of an application like Keyhole’s is good for the industry in general and it’s good for Nvidia,” he says.