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6D.ai is building AR tech that crowdsources a 3D mesh of the world

The problems that augmented reality startups aim to solve often could seem pretty trivial.

Just as the HBO show Silicon Valley skewered the industry’s obsession with placing digital mustaches precisely on people’s faces, the problem of allowing multiple phones to know where exactly your coffee table is could seem pretty laughable. But with augmented reality, things can get complicated and consequential rather quickly.

6D.ai, a young startup emerging from Oxford University’s Active Vision Lab, is aiming to use smartphone cameras to build a cloud-based, crowd-sourced three-dimensional map of the world that will let app developers expand their sights and let users gather some actual utility from phone-based AR built on top of Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore platforms. What’s more interesting is that all of this can be done in the background so that while users are playing an AR game with a passive camera feed — something similar to Pokémon GO — they could also be gathering rich 3D data of the environments that they’re navigating through.

“One of the big things holding back engaging AR is for that content to feel like it’s actually physically part of the world,” CEO Matt Miesnieks told TechCrunch in an interview. “To really make that effect possible, you need to have a 3D model of at least your room, if not the whole world.”

An early demo of 6D.ai live mapping technology running on an iPhone with an external depth sensor.

Miesnieks has been investing in AR startups as a partner at SF-based SuperVentures after having worked in the industry leading an AR R&D team at Samsung and co-founding the AR startup Dekko. Last summer, Miesnieks came across fellow 6D.ai co-founder Victor Prisacariu’s work at Oxford University and decided that there was a company to be started. The team of 7 employees now includes Altspace VR co-founder Bruce Wooden who just came on as the company’s head of developer relations.

What 6D.ai has built ends up functioning a bit like a Waze for AR, using smartphone cameras to build a cloud-based map of the world’s three-dimensional data that will supercharge augmented reality content in a way that could actually make it useful to people.

Your phone’s memory will be able to store the three-dimensional geometry of around 100 meters in walking distance, while the on-device storage can hold city blocks of information. This means that as more and more devices running 6D.ai’s engine hit the streets, a web of phones will begin building up a cloud map of the world’s ground-level three-dimensional data. As other users stumble upon areas that have previously been mapped, 6D.ai will download that information and allow the new user to further refine the precision of the 3D model while pushing 3D interactions further into the distance than their devices can sense.

When you’re talking about a service that could literally have access to a 3D map of the inside of your home, there’s more than a little reason to be concerned about privacy needs. It’s not quite Dark Knight levels, but as more and more developers utilize the API, 6D.ai will build an incredibly powerful three-dimensional perspective of the world.

“We’re very conscious of the potentials for abuse,” Miesnieks says. “So one straight up rule is that you’re not going to be able to get access to data about a place unless you are physically in that place so I can’t download your home unless you’ve physically invited me into your home and I’m there already.”

6D.ai co-founder Victor Prisacariu giving a recent demo to Apple CEO Tim Cook.

The use cases of such a technology expand far beyond phone-based AR, Miesnieks says that the company has also been talking with drone-manufacturers and robotics companies as well.

With all this additional 3D data available on the device, other technical problems facing AR become a lot easier to handle as well. What makes multiplayer AR gaming so difficult is that both phones generally have needed to be seeing the world from the same vantage point in order to sync up, meaning you literally would need to put a phone next to another user’s to sync up your maps before starting up a joined game or app.

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