What's UpNext?

A few months back a friend told me of a 3D city map app called UpNext. Naturally being a digital city geek I downloaded the app for my iPod Touch to give it a quick look-see.

Launching the app gave me the choice of several 3D city maps (Austin, Boston, New York, Portland, San Francisco, and Washington D.C.) to download that I could access offline which is a super plus for those with an iPod Touch. I selected San Francisco, which only took a few moments to download, and it didn't take long to become impressed with the app.

Navigation uses standard Apple interface actions such as pinch to zoom, two finger drag to tilt the view, etc. As I zoomed in from the initial bird's eye view of the whole city, the app broke the city down into its neighborhoods. This was a nice surprise as I still don't know the exact locations of all the 'hoods' in SF. Zooming further down quickly loaded simple but nicely textured 3D building models with more levels of detail as I got closer to the ground. UpNext gets its map data from VisionMedia and it looks like every single building in SF and other cities are modeled.

As seen in the company video below, clicking on a building pulls up information, ratings, and reviews from listed businesses in the building from sites like Localeze, CitySearch, and others (New York Times and Time Out NY for NYC map). There are features in the app that allow you to see transit routes, address search, select categories for search, and mark, favorite, or rate selected places.

The UpNext website offers the same, of course bigger, 3D map experience with all the features of the app running via a Java plugin. There is also an application it seems for Facebook, but not being a fan of any third-party Facebook applications, I have not tested that out. These alternatives do make it nice for those without an i-Device that want to experience the application.

Although cool and impressive, I didn't really use the app that much after the initial test drive. I mean I know my way around SF so why bother.
Now fast forward to the present and I will say that I have found this app to be crucial to my getting around and finding places in New York City while I visit this month. I use it so much daily that I just had to contact the guys behind this start-up to find out more and was able to get a hold of co-founder and CTO Vik Advani for a virtual interview.

M1: Please tell us in your words, what is UpNext?
V:UpNext is creating the next generation of 3D maps for mobile devices. We create engaging 3D maps of cities and allow users to interact with every part of that city. Our maps are geared towards exploration so users can tap on building to see venues inside, explore via categories and search and see the buildings with matched results light up in a lively fashion. Our goal is to make it easy and fun to explore, navigate and discover a city using our technology.

M1: How is it different from other LBS apps like FourSquare or Gowalla?
V:We differ from other LBS apps in the sense that our focus is on mapping while FourSquare and Gowalla focus on social. We believe down the line we can work together with other LBS services to bring out their data in unique ways. As they work on their APIs and expose more data we feel we can visualize their data in ways other mapping providers can't. Also, as other LBS services grow and look to differentiate themselves we feel they can use our maps to engage their users.

M1: How did you guys come up with the idea for UpNext?
V: My brother moved to New York and found tools to explore the city lacking so had the idea of creating very interactive maps. Then one day he came to me with a very rough mock up of 3D generated city and we took it from there. Three years and many iterations later the result is the current product in the iTunes store.

M1: Why 3D and not just 2D on the mobile version?
V: 3D gives you a better context for the location for the area you are looking at. Also, it allows maps to go beyond the static state they are in today. Currently, with 2D maps, users see a pushpin and the cross streets and that tends to be all they do. With 3D maps, every object can be clicked on, every subway station can be touched, every building can be tapped. It also allows us to bring out layers in visually compelling and informative ways like we do with our searches and subway lines. Think of it as 3D canvas where you can move, touch and color everything. We feel the potential is limitless.

M1: Who are your typical UpNext users?
V: Our users tend to be locals and tourists who explore an of a city they are going to be at or an area they are at currently. Our traffic peaks on the weekends of after work when people are looking to go out. Our engagement is high as the average session time is over 10 minutes and users typically view 20 or more businesses.

M1: What cities will we see added in the near future?
V: The next cities being released are going to be Philadelphia, Chicago, which are coming next week. Houston, Denver, Seattle, Los Angeles will be after that.

M1: Can users and business owners add or edit their own information?
V: Users can edit business information and add their own information currently. We then have a system on the back end where we approve these edits. We'd like to improve this system though so user data is added instantly and users can monitor and flag incorrect venues themselves.

M1: Does UpNext connect with other location based service APIs?
V: Yep, we do. Currently we integrate with Foursquare quite heavily. Users can see their checkins, their friends checkins and current trending venues. We hope to add more layers and data visualizations in the future. Also, as Twitter and Facebook expand their LBS offering we hope to have deeper integration with them as well.

M1: I know you have a 3D web version of UpNext at your website, which is super cool, any plans for an augmented reality component to your mobile app?
V: We do have plans for a unique street/augmented reality view on our map. It would involve going down to the street level and seeing data in a very visual and fun way much like a video game (think Grand Theft Auto). Our eventual goal is to make it so users can walk down any street and browse the storefronts like they are window shopping.

M1: What made you personally switch from the video game industry to location based services?
V: I was in the video game industry for several years and enjoyed making console titles. I always felt though that the technology in video gaming will eventually seep out into other industries. I've always had a desire to take what I learned in gaming and apply to something else. Mapping seemed like an obvious area where I could apply what I've learned. It helped that my brother started working on UpNext as well of course! A lot of industries, not just mapping could use techniques and technologies that are taken as a given in the video game industry.

M1: What are three things you would like to see for the future of UpNext?
V: The three things I'd like to see for the future of UpNext are 1)expansion to more cities 2)APIs, so others can integrate our technology and 3)our streetview/augmented reality view that we think will really engage users and take UpNext to the next level.

Thanks for your time Vik and for making my time in New York City so nice with such a helpful application. I have not been lost once!

I look forward to future developments and conversations with these guys as they continue to grow. There is also an informative hour long video interview with UpNext CEO Danny Moon that can be seen at the company blog. So for those readers that are locals or travelers to these cities, grab this free app. You will be glad you did.


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