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Seeing the world in new dimensions

By Mattias Åström, Special to CNN
A photo-realistic image of San Francisco from C3 Technologies.
A photo-realistic image of San Francisco from C3 Technologies.
  • Photo-realistic 3D mapping has come of age says Mattias Åström
  • Covert military development has led to civil applications that can change the way we see world
  • 3D maps could be used to save lives or just see who is out on Saturday night

Editor's note: Mattias Åström is president and CEO of Sweden-based C3 Technologies, provider of 3D mapping solutions for search, navigation and geographic information systems.

(CNN) -- James Cameron's 2009 box office blockbuster, "Avatar", more than revived interest and investment in 3D technology for entertainment purposes.

Now the technology can be found in pricey new flat-screen TVs and accompanying goofy glasses, to shockingly realistic massively multi-player shoot'em-up games.

But while the entertainment industry slept from 3D's first wave of popularity in the 1950s to the brief worldwide resurgence in the 1980s and '90s, classified military advancements in 3D quietly blossomed that are now beginning to find their way into commercial applications, much like technology developed for space exploration is now commonplace in our lives today.

3D is cool because it lets you see the world the way it really is.

Classified military advancements in 3D quietly blossomed that are now beginning to find their way into commercial applications.
--Mattias Astrom, C3 Technologies

And, with the right technology underpinnings, 3D can be used for a raft of useful products and services today that could save lives, assist us in making a better decision about the cities we live in, homes we buy, or just make it easier to find friends who are out on a Saturday night and share our experiences with others.

The same 3D mapping technology used to navigate multi-million dollar fighter jets over barren deserts and mountain ranges or direct heat-seeking missiles into hidden terrorist hideouts, can now be applied to more peaceful endeavors, such as showing visitors how to enjoy London during the 2012 Olympic Games, or simulate the impacts of a Category 5 hurricane hitting downtown Miami and the best way to evacuate the affected population.

One of the first commercial uses of this powerful technology is for identifying which trees to cut in a forest to maximize revenue and minimize ecological disruption. Another is to correctly position wind turbines for efficient energy production.

Photo-realistic 3D models of cities and inaccessible wilderness are now in the works to bring not just the present, but the past and future to simulated life in stunning 360°-exploreable images for students, researchers and armchair adventurers.

Watch a demo of C3 Technologies photo-realistic maps

We now have the sophisticated image processing software and systems needed to map the entire world in 3D inside and out.

With that kind of information at their fingertips city planners can remove blocks of abandoned buildings from a blighted neighborhood and insert the project finalists' designs so residents can see how they look in context before voting on the ones they like best.

Real estate agents can show you entire regions of a city or suburb, including where is the closest supermarket to that dream home, overlay crime statistics, or figure out the fastest route your kids will take to school.

Travel websites can let you see the view from Room 1120 before you book it for your romantic getaway. Restaurants can include 3D interior maps and attach menus. Potential applications for 3D maps are truly endless.

Not too long ago Google, Microsoft and Nokia generously gave everyone free access to satellite images of anywhere in the world.

But unless you're a bird or an alien, that's not how we see things.

People prefer to see the sides of buildings and all the other objects around them: every tree, every lamp post and every street sign as they really appear -- no cartoons -- making it easy to recognize an address or a point of interest.

The only limit to how 3D maps can and will be put to work is the creativity of our best and brightest app developers. So, get ready, because photo-realistic 3D maps are coming soon to a computer or smart phone near you.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mattias Åström.