Earthmine, the Best Technology Innovation/Achievement category winner at tonight's Crunchies, is a company that might seem uninteresting at first glance. When I first saw earthmine I assumed that it was just a Google Maps Streetview knock-off. I was wrong.

This startup is doing something far more interesting than that. While Google Maps and related consumer products have whetted the public's appetite for visualization of specific places on a map, earthmine is making those places machine readable.

How it works

The company uses a proprietary array of still-images cameras to take photos in stereo at regular spacial intervals while driving through city streets. The resulting 3D images can be measured with an accuracy that corresponds to measurements of the physical objects and distances they represent.

The company says it covered San Francisco in just three weeks. Each day's data is processed automatically and is available before the next day begins.

The initially self-funded company recently took an investment from CalTech and secured an exclusive liscence to use 3D image processing technology developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Generating dense, accurate 3D data from wide-angle images is a serious technology challenge but one that the JPL worked on to process data returned by the Mars Rover.

What it means

Just as we here at ReadWriteWeb are excited about the potential offered by a machine-readable, or semantic, web - so too are the possibilities countless when thinking about a data rich, accurate and machine-readable 3D representation of the urban environment. earthmine offers a usable looking web interface but that's just the friendly wrapper around a dataset of far greater consequence.

From urban planning to mobile services to security applications, this kind of data and interface has a lot of potential. If the value of mapping and of GIS are clear, the value of a geospatial 3D dataset about urban environments should be clear as well. Combine all three and you'll be able to assemble some very interesting resources on almost any topic.

It is important to me to say that I don't care for the way the company talks about the technology, as "reality mining" and "indexing reality." To call that tasteless would be an understatement. I'm concerned that such reductionism could have substantial adverse political consequences. Maybe I'm just old fashioned to believe that there's far more that's important in "reality" than the things that can be digitized - and that much of it ought not be mined. I should probably stop, though, before a corporate exit puts me in thumbscrews listening to a well-fed Dr. Evil laugh. This technology itself could be put to use for good or ill, I'm sure.

Either way, this is fascinating stuff and worth some thought no matter how you relate to it. In addition to the very well produced company-produced video below this interview with the young earthmine CEO and this one of his time on stage at the DEMO Fall conference is worth a watch.