The Contour looks a bit like an oversized portable gaming console. Theres a seven-inch touchscreen display in the center, with two large handles on either side. A circular LIDAR scanner juts out in front, scanning the space as you go. As it reads the room, a 3D mapping image develops on the screen, displaying what looks to be a birds-eye view infrared map of the space and all the objects in it.
The Contour is one of two new products from Pittsburgh-based startup, Kaarta (theres also the smaller Stencil), designed for handheld mapping of spaces by architects, engineers and construction workers. Kaarta (formerly Real Earth) is certainly not the only contender in town quite literally. The presence of nearby Carnegie Mellon has made the city a hotbed for 3D mapping technologies, as companies like Uber and Ford have moved in to take advantage of a glut of world-class computer scientists and a local government thats been particularly aggressive about courting tech companies.
But where Kaarta stands out is in its ability to do mapping in real time, with no post-processing involved. In the case of the Contour, that means generating a visual of that information on the touchscreen in front of you.
We have the ability to see the map as youre walking, explains CEO Kevin Dowling. And you can see if you missed areas. One of the worst things for surveyors and mappers is having callbacks, to have to go back because you missed a place or made an error. With this system, you have all of that information with you.
Like many of Pittsburghs startups, Kaartas origins can be linked back to CMUs robotics school, where Dowling did his PhD work in the subject. The mapping technology the startup has developed is an attempt to address SLAM (simultaneous localization and mapping), a common problem in the field that revolves around a lack of self-awareness.
Its the answer to two fundamental questions: where am I and whats around me, explains Dowling. Thats very important for a mobile robot to have. And the technology solution that weve built our business around solves that problem. I think this points out that theres many applications beyond our traditional view of robots are in creating new forms of new technologies that well use every day.
The accuracy of Kaartas underlying technology has already helped put it on the map. The young startup has won Microsofts Indoor Mapping Competition two years running and was recently selected by Pittsburgh to test its technology to help map the citys pipes and infrastructure.
Given the current land grab happening around Pittsburghs self-driving car industry, its easy to imagine Kaarta getting snapped up as some tech giant moves to town. In the meantime, however, the companys portfolio is pretty modest and aimed mostly at infrastructure jobs like surveying and construction. The Contour was only announced in April and large pieces of the one Dowling uses to map the room as he talks look like theyve been created in a 3D printer.
But the startup executive has big plans for the future. As the price begins to drop, youll see more and more adoption of this for first responders, hazmat, law enforcement and so forth, he explains. And the technology can also determine the location of a sensor in an environment. Our technology can also be used in autonomous cars and vehicles to determine the position of a robot.