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Susan Smith
Susan Smith
Susan Smith has worked as an editor and writer in the technology industry for over 16 years. As an editor she has been responsible for the launch of a number of technology trade publications, both in print and online. Currently, Susan is the Editor of GISCafe and AECCafe, as well as those sites’ … More »

Imagery Collection from Any Moving Vehicle with New NCTech 360-Degree Camera for Google Street View

May 24th, 2017 by Susan Smith

Neil Tocher, CTO at Edinburgh, Scotland-based NCTech, reality imaging systems developer, spoke with GISCafe Voice about NCTech’s recent demonstration of a new 360-degree camera designed to be mounted on any vehicle in order to capture and generate virtual street-level imagery.

NCTech Street View camera on vehicle

Google is set to trial the new camera for Street View capture in three countries (not currently announced).  Details of the new product were presented at the recent Google Street View Summit 2017 in Tokyo.

According to company materials, with a 360 x 300 degree field of view, the new camera captures data at five frames per second to produce 60 megapixel spherical images. The Street View auto ready camera is designed to collect data from any moving vehicle for Google’s Street View platform and other platforms. The new camera will be available in Q4 2017.

Close view of the NCTech VRC

Google wants to increase the volume and frequency of data uploaded to Street View and NCTech’s new camera combines futuristic tech and accessible design with low cost, to help achieve that goal. NCTech’s ultimate goal is to increase the 10 million miles per year currently available online to one billion miles per year.

The new camera utilizes Intel technology and will be the first to adopt NCTech’s Intelligent Capture System, a cloud-based system that talks to each camera, ensuring that the data collected is unique and manages disk space on the camera.

NCTech Street View camera at sunset

“With this product, we’re making use of the very latest Intel Apollo Lake processor technology.” said Tocher. “Intel have worked very closely with us to ensure the product realizes all the potential benefits provided by this new chipset for ultrafast street-level virtualization.”

NCTech also announced a second new Street View compatible product, the VRC (Virtual Reality Camera). The new low-cost consumer camera will provide 3D virtualization of interior places, capturing 360-degree images and depth, allowing viewers to explore in full immersive virtual reality.

“The VRC is the first affordable consumer Virtual Reality Camera. It will help democratize virtual reality by making the capture of user generated 3D VR content easy and abundant,” said Tocher. “The VRC’s Street View API compatibility now enables anyone to be able to share their virtualized places on Street View.”
GISCafe Voice: Is this camera specifically designed for Google and Street View?

NCTech VRC in the workplace in office with coffee

iSTAR Pulsar was not designed exclusively for Google but they have some very specific and ambitious plans, so ensuring we delivered a product that met their needs was paramount. It was quite a natural step for us, as we were frequently asked whether our iSTAR Fusion camera can be mounted on a vehicle, but is designed for use as a static 360-degree camera for rapid HDR colour capture in terrestrial laser scanning.

GISCafe Voice: Has Google entered into partnerships with NCTech before? If so, what are they?

We have had a relationship with Google’s Street View team for quite a few years and knew the key people there before they were part of Google. Our first iris360 camera was released in 2015 in conjunction with Google and was designed to meet the needs of their ‘Street View | Trusted’ photographers, who are commissioned by owners of shops, restaurants, bars etc to image their premises for hosting on Street View. Google’s ‘Street View ready’ programme is building on this and encompassing different data structures beyond 360.

GISCafe Voice: What countries will get the pilots?

During our pilot stage over the coming months, neither Google or NCTech will be revealing the countries and cities that are part of the Street View data collection initiative.

[Note that it will be more than three countries]

GISCafe Voice: What use cases do you see for this camera?

iSTAR Pulsar is specifically tuned for capturing streams of 360-degree images and running automatically for long periods, without needing manual interaction. While Street View is clearly a very significant catalyst of this product’s development, the camera is also intended for other companies looking to perform the same kind of capture. This could be other tech firms looking to build out their own digital platforms, or existing users of this kind of mobile mapping technology, such as GIS professionals. We expect the latter will benefit greatly from this new market expansion in terms of reduced costs and increased options when it comes to selecting a mobile mapping product.

GISCafe Voice: With the Intelligent Capture System, does it let you know when the disk is full? 

Yes. The ICS is in communication with the iSTAR Pulsar during data collection and provides feedback to the user on its status. But the ICS also goes much further and provides proactive information on where to collect and how to maximize the user’s collection efficiency.

GISCafe Voice: How does the Intel Apollo Lake technology factor in?

This provides us with a low-power, low-heat chipset with superior processing speed to compute the vast collection of data for long periods. Intel have worked very closely with us to ensure that we benefit from all the potential of their latest technologies.

GISCafe Voice: How do you see the VRC camera impacting the market?

The new ‘Street View ready’ program changes Street View in two dramatic ways. Firstly it builds on the ‘Street View | Trusted’ model where individuals do the capture, not Google directly. This eliminates the logistical limits of geographic reach and frequency of capture. When your ambition is to digitize the planet, it’s a lot easier when you have the planet working with you. Google are one of the few companies who could set up a model like this and mobilize enough support to make it work.

The second change is that Street View is no longer just 360 imagery. Google are incorporating VR technologies to enhance the experience. Imagine what that means – not just spinning that 360 photo around to get a basic sense of what that street or restaurant looks like. We’re talking about leveraging the mass adoption of mobile and VR technology to put you right there. This means an expansion from 360 images into true VR content, and this ultimately requires 3D depth.

In both of these respects the VRC has a significant impact. It is first and foremost a virtual reality camera (hence the name) that combines 360-degree images with 3D depth sensing, and we are aiming for a purchase price starting at $500 to make high quality VR capture technology as accessible as possible.

GISCafe Voice: Do you see the VRC camera as disruptive technology as in being used in place of 3D laser scanning, and if so where and how?

We believe that the VRC has the potential to facilitate a mass disruption in the 3D scanning and reality capture industries, but do we think this disruption will cut across the need for GIS and AEC professionals to use survey grade technology? That is unlikely, but we hope it will open up new application areas for which using kit costing tens of thousands of dollars is too expensive. From $500, the VRC is cheap enough for everyone to explore new ways of doing things, and we are excited to see how creative people can be with it.

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Categories: data, emergency response, geospatial, GIS, Google, government, GPS, handhelds, image-delivery software, in car navigation, indoor mapping, iPhone, laser radar, LBS, lidar, location based services, location intelligence, mapping, mobile, NCTech, photogrammetry, remote sensing, resilient cities, Street View, transportation

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