Five Questions with Tom Churchill, CEO of Earthscape

By Joe Francica

Directions Magazine (DM): Describe the original design and concept for Earthscape. Did you initially envision it as a mobile app or was it designed to be a web application?

Tom Churchill (TC):
Earthscape was designed from the ground up for mobile applications; the original impetus for starting the company three years ago was the observation that navigation systems were just plain bad. They were bad in two important ways. 1) They were ugly. Blocky, stick graphics and slow frame rates. Nothing at all like the beautiful Keyhole (later Google Earth) application. 2) More importantly, they didn't do what I wanted them to do. The analogy I draw is between PNDs and cell phones - the first cell phones were big block, shoebox-sized devices that placed and received phone calls - and did nothing else. Likewise, PNDs were - and largely still are - very functional. They tell you how to get from point "A" to point "B" and that's about it. Cell phones today, however, are - well - amazing. Kids use them to play games, people download ringtones - they've become much more about entertainment. And the same, we thought, should be true in the mobile "geo" space. What we wanted wasn't a nav system that told you how to get across Kansas (just get on I-70 and drive in a straight line for six hours), but a nav system that would make driving across Kansas interesting - that would have "points of interest" that really were interesting.

When I said "nav system," of course, you have to bear in mind that was three years ago - and we were thinking "nav system" because it was the only device that was similar to what we wanted to build. But our team was software engineers, and we knew if we tried to build hardware, that 1) it would be some giant clunky thing like the Dash, and 2) it would be next to impossible to get distribution to sell it. (Again, just like Dash.)

So for a while, we focused on the desktop side of the equation. We believe modern mobile devices and applications need to live in a rich ecosystem of interaction with other applications, and that desktop computers will continue to play an important role. Our thinking evolved, too. We recognized cell phones as the platform to which navigation would migrate, and that what we were building wasn't a navigation system at all, but something that would complement navigation solutions.

DM: What are you finding is the first thing people try when they download and use your app for the iPhone?

The iPhone is amazing in several important regards. First, it's a great hardware and software platform, in a beautiful form factor. It's just a fantastic phone. Second, the model they pioneered to allow for third party software development changes the world. It is truly open in a way that nothing else is - not even Android. (You can't write programs in "C++," for example.) What immediately strikes most people on seeing Earthscape for the first time are the photos you see when you launch the application - different every time, always only a few minutes old - taken by other Earthscape users all around the world. You can literally see where the sun is every time you start it up. You might see photos from London of buildings lit up at night, while pictures from the east coast of the U.S. are of people at work, and pictures from California are of the sunrise and the morning commute. Every time I start Earthscape, I'm reminded of Disney's "It's a Small World After All."

DM: What are some of the problems that users first encountered and how are you addressing them in the next version?

Our first version was not only slow, but it would often crash due to using a lot of memory - not a good combination. While the iPhone is very powerful, it's still a computer that runs on a battery the size of a matchbox, and it took several weeks for us to really learn how to squeeze maximum performance out of it and release an update. Few companies, after all, have built a good version of a virtual globe, even for desktop computers. We're pleased to report that not only is the current version of Earthscape much faster, but it is very stable as well, and uses 1/8th the amount of memory it previously used.

DM: What are some of the surprising ways that people are using Earthscape, and how are you capturing this information? How is it different from Flickr, for example?

Flickr is a great application, but it is a very different sort of thing. When I think of Flickr, I think of great photos taken by talented photographers with expensive cameras. Earthscape is different in the following important ways:

1) All (100%) of the photos are geotagged. Every place has a story to tell, and that story may change over time. Earthscape not only captures the picture, but it captures the time and place as well.

2) It's real-time. I cannot overstate the significance of this. When you start Earthscape, the default photo sorting order is by date. You will see the most recently taken photos from around the globe first, and as you zoom in, older and older photos. This gives the application a wholly different character. When you see protests in Hungary on the globe when you start it up, you know that they are happening NOW! You can leave comments on the photos and communicate with the photographer while the person is there. Same thing with bomb threats or other news events.

3) It's automatic. You don't need to think about anything; you don't need to take any actions. Start Earthscape, click on the camera icon to take a photo. That's it. Your photo is not only on the globe viewable by thousands of other iPhone Earthscape users in a couple of minutes, but also on the Web, where we maintain a personal photoblog for you or your friends and family (along with a Google Earth KML file documenting your travels). Example here.

What has astonished me is the incredible cross-section of society we have using - and absolutely passionate about - Earthscape. Strippers and university professors, truck drivers and political operatives, movie makers and soccer moms, artists and heavy metal rock band members. Who knew? Even more interesting are the uses they've found for Earthscape: everything from taking a photo of their car in the airport parking lot so they can find it a week later, to documenting a drive across the country, to taking photos of a football game and noting the section and row they were sitting in, so that future potential ticket purchasers can see firsthand what the view looks like.

DM: Where do you think your users will lead you in developing other applications?

TC: I think much remains to be done in the mobile geo space. The industry now has the tools upon which we can build tremendously interesting applications: great phones, fast Internet connectivity, good basemaps and compelling visualization engines. But these are technologies. Connecting Earthscape users with the places they care about and introducing them to other people who share their interests is what will change their lives. As we fuse mapping with documenting events and sharing, I can imagine entirely new kinds of crowd-sourced information emerging. An example of this kind of application could be translation. Consider for a moment a picture that I took of a sign, along with a picture of a sign someone else has taken. My sign is in English; his in Portuguese. Imagine if we ask users proficient in multiple languages whether they wish to volunteer to translate signs, and users have a way to nominate photos (of signs, menus - anything) for this service. You could find yourself on vacation looking at a monument with an inscription you can't read, but which may already have been translated months ago by someone who has never been there. While it isn't clear this is something we will do, it's the kind of thing that can be done.

Location is something people feel very strongly about. We cannot help but have strong feelings for the store that ripped us off or treated us badly, or the restaurant that makes the best blackberry pies ever, or the surfing spot where we caught the perfect wave. So while it's still too early to know exactly where our users will lead us, I am quite certain that wherever it is, it will be in a direction they feel passionate about.

Published Thursday, November 13th, 2008

Written by Joe Francica

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