A recognizable location was chosen: the Washington Square Arch in Washington Square Park in lower Manhattan. the ZDNet ostentatiously dressed journalist: a black hat, black sunglasses and a puffy jacket. The journalist’s contacts had no trouble finding him.
And that’s how human encounters work. A simple phrase like “under the arch” is easy for a person to understand.
But how do people tell machines where to meet? “The side entrance, not the main entrance” is a natural language phrase that people understand, but machines don’t.
Nine years ago, British startup what3words came up with a solution: make humans speak in a coded language that is both easy for a person to formulate and successfully for a machine to process.
The code for “under the Washington Square arch” for by ZDNet meeting was “Tribe Void Ruby”. If there was any doubt about the location, plug it into the what3words site — it can be transformed into URL — highlights a 100 square foot meeting area.
What3words’ singular achievement is to have divided the entire planet’s surface into 100 square foot plots. The total area of the earth is 510.1 million square kilometers; hat equals 57 trillion 100 square foot plots.
As well: what3words divides the world into trillions of 10ft location squares
what3words gained another adherent this week to its new addressing system, as automaker Subaru announcement Wednesday at the New York Auto Show. Subaru will specifically integrate the technology into its new Outback models.
“We’re particularly focused on the human-to-machine use case. And the use in cars, in particular, is a huge opportunity for us,” said what3words chief marketing officer Giles Rhys Jones. ZDNet at a meeting under the Washington Square Arch.
During a demonstration on Monday, Jones took ZDNet‘s reporter during a ride in the latest Mercedes integrating what3words technology. The car’s voice-activated assistant can receive a what3words command and use it to offer navigation, instead of speaking a street address.
By using 40,000 English words in combos of three, you can make a total of 40,000 possible combinations raised to the third power, which equals 64 trillion. That’s more than enough to have a three-word combo for each patch. Three-word phrases are listed for each planet patch on the what3words website and app.
Words are randomly assigned via an algorithm. Look at the Parthenon atop the Acropolis in Athens, and the patch centered on the ancient temple is “Player Roving Tropic”. Cambodia’s majestic Angkor Wat is “Regulates Slab Tacky”. Antarctica’s Mount Taylor is “Corked Dolphins Sirs”.
The phrase database has been established in 50 languages, including Mongolian, Swahili and Welsh.
The technology may have particular utility in a geography such as Mongolia – the first country to integrate the service into the national postal service. Some of the population is nomadic, and giving a phrase for a current 100 square foot location may be an alternative to giving a permanent mailing address.
English retains a linguistic advantage, however, as it is the only language the company uses to address each of the 57 trillion squares, including the oceans, which make up 71% of the Earth’s surface. All other languages are limited to 25,000 words, resulting in only 15.6 trillion combinations used for land masses.
The words “naughty” are eliminated, as are homonyms like “hear” and “here” to avoid potential confusion when talking to a voice assistant.
After catching the attention of the assistant in the Mercedes with the wake-up phrase, “Hey, Mercedes”, simply say “navigate to those three words, Patio Among Tame” to bring up the on-screen navigation.
“If you imagine trying to put in a mailing address, either by typing or by voice, it’s so much more difficult,” Jones observed. “When in five seconds it goes in a precise 10-by-10-foot square, and you can have confidence that you’re going exactly where you want to go.”
One day, a car navigation system may be able to understand natural language phrases such as “just east of Washington Square Arch.” what3words is designed for a world of cars and other machines that don’t exist, in terms of language processing.
Although automakers tend to move more slowly than electronics companies, the number of those joining the service is growing rapidly, with seven automakers signing up in the past six months, including Ford, Mitsubishi and Lamborghini. The company has 10 carmakers in total and 11 of what are called “Tier 1 suppliers” – companies that make various vehicle parts, including navigation provider TomTom.
Mercedes was the first, and now every new Mercedes vehicle is compatible with this technology.
“The chairman of Daimler understood this even before we finished the first sentence,” said Jones, describing how Mercedes-Benz Group AG’s Ola Källenius grasped the importance when what3words made its first presentation.
“They are what we call ambitious innovators,” Mercedes’ Jones said. “We focus on those people.”
“Lamborghini said, ‘Everything about us is innovation, so we want the latest technology in our vehicles,'” Jones added. And now Subaru sees the phrases as fitting the Outback’s usefulness as an all-terrain vehicle.
The service is free for drivers, paid for by car manufacturers on a per-vehicle fee.
But the technology also finds other users, such as first responders who need to locate people in an emergency. Delivery is another use case. “Standard Google Maps location using GPS doesn’t tell you which part of a building to go to; it just drops a pin in the middle of the structure,” Jones observed. Domino’s Pizza gives customers the option to use a phrase for delivery.
As well: Domino’s hopes to get your address with new what3words tracking technology
The technology has also entered pop culture. It has been featured as a plot device in shows such as “CSI”. And the Imagine Dragons group used it as a sort of Easter egg. Their album, “Evolve”, was promoted with a word scramble that spelled out the phrase “Burger Composes Release” when resolved. This led to a lot going on in American Fork, Utah, where the band buried awards for fans.
UK publisher Dorling Kindersley has produced a series of travel guides where each recommended site has its three-word code listed in the blurb.
what3words looks forward to further expansion. Revenues in 2020 were half a million; Jones declined to provide an update on earnings. But more than £100m of venture capital funds have been raised so far from investors including the venture capital unit of Mercedes, Intel, Aramex, Deutsche Bahn, Subaru and Sony Innovation Fund.
The company is currently working on a Series D investment round, Jones said, whose proceeds will help push the technology into more languages, among other tasks.
It is also necessary to develop more marketing to familiarize people with the service. Right now, word of mouth – no pun intended – may be the only way for many people to encounter what3words. That, or its use in vehicle navigation.
“We need to get the word out,” Jones said, a task the company seems well suited for.