Taking on Google by Learning From Ants

Fifteenth- and 16th-century European explorers helped to transform cartography during the Age of Discovery. Rather than mapping newly discovered worlds, Blaise Agüera y Arcas is out to invent new ways of viewing the old ones.

Mr. Agüera y Arcas is the architect of Bing Maps, the online mapping service that is part of Microsoft Corp.’s Bing Internet search engine. Bing Maps does all the basics, like turn-by-turn directions and satellite views that offer a peek into the neighbor’s backyard, but Mr. Agüera y Arcas has attracted attention in the tech world by pushing the service to do a lot more.

Blaise Agüera y Arcas, in Bellevue, Wash.

He helped to cook up a technology that allows people to post high-resolution photocollages that explore the interiors of buildings. For New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, 1,317 still images dissolve into each other, giving an online visitor the sensation of touring the Greek and Roman art wing. By dragging a mouse, the viewer can circle a marble statute of Aphrodite and zoom in on the exhibit’s sign to read that the statue, Venus Genetrix, was created between the first and second centuries A.D.

For a user who wants to check out a particular street, Mr. Agüera y Arcas has devised an elegant visual transition that provides the feel of skydiving to the ground. He says that these transitions will become even better over time. “I want this all to become cinematic,” he said.

Mr. Agüera y Arcas, 35, imagines these projects from a cramped office on the 22nd floor of a new high-rise in Bellevue, Wash., facing the jagged geography of the Cascade Range. One wall is covered in chalk notes and equations. He messily applied a coat of blackboard paint to the wall himself because he dislikes the odor of whiteboard markers.

“Technically, I don’t think I was supposed to do that,” said Mr. Agüera y Arcas. With short-cropped hair and a scruffy beard, he has the appearance of a graduate student.

When he’s brainstorming, Mr. Agüera y Arcas paces his office, talking to himself out loud. He said the process “doesn’t look very good,” but the self-dialogue is essential for working out new ideas. “First you try to beat something down and show why it’s a stupid idea,” he said. “Then you branch out. What’s the broadest range of solutions I can come up with? It’s all very dialectical. You kind of argue with yourself.”

He often shares “new pieces of vision,” as he calls these early-stage concepts, in presentations and documents that are distributed to other members of the team. Mr. Agüera y Arcas, who manages about 60 people, said the most stimulating meetings he has are “jam sessions,” in which people riff on each others’ ideas. “Without all of that input, I don’t think I would be doing interesting things on my own,” he said.

Prototypes, he said, are crucial. These include everything from crude bits of functional code to storyboard sketches. Mr. Agüera y Arcas demonstrated one such prototype: a short video, done with a designer, that shows a street-level map in which typography representing street names is upright and suspended off the ground so that it’s easier to see.

“Presenting an idea in the abstract as text or as something you talk about doesn’t have anything like the galvanizing effect on people or on yourself,” he said.

His most productive moments often occur outside the office, without the distraction of meetings. After he has dinner and puts his two young children to bed, Mr. Agüera y Arcas says he and his wife, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington, often sit side-by-side working on their laptops late into the night.


Points of Interest

• Though Mr. Agüera y Arcas has assumed greater management responsibilities over the years, he still considers it vital to find time to develop projects on his own. “You see people who evolved in this way, and sometimes it looks like their brains died,” he said.

• He is a coffee connoisseur, fueling himself throughout the workday with several trips to a café downstairs in his building. Because he can’t always break away from the office, a gleaming chrome espresso maker and coffee grinder sit in the corner “for emergencies,” he said.

• He finds driving a car “deadening,” so he takes a bus to work from his home, reading or working on his laptop during the commute.

• When he was young, Mr. Agüera y Arcas dismantled things both animal and inanimate, from cameras to guinea pigs, so that he could see how they worked.


He finds unlikely sources of inspiration. Mr. Agüera y Arcas once cobbled together software that automatically clustered together related images on a photo-sharing site, with the goal of creating detailed 3-D reconstructions composed of pictures from many different photographers. The software was inspired by research he had read about how ant colonies form the most efficient pathways to food sources. He used the software to build a 3D view of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple.

Another time, he stumbled on a project inside Microsoft’s research group called WorldWide Telescope that offers access to telescope imagery of the universe over the Web. Now when Bing Maps users are viewing a location at street level, they can gaze up at the sky to see constellations appear overhead. (Microsoft is testing this and other features on an experimental version of its site before rolling them out to a wider audience.)

A marble statue of Aphrodite at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art can be viewed through an app on Bing Maps.

Mr. Agüera y Arcas draws from an eclectic set of skills and interests. The son of a Catalan father and an American mother who met on an Israeli kibbutz, he learned how to program computers during his childhood in Mexico City. As a teenager on a summer internship with a U.S. Navy research center in Bethesda, Md., he reprogrammed the guidance software for aircraft carriers to improve their stability at sea, which helped to reduce seasickness among sailors.

He studied physics, neuroscience and applied math at Princeton University but stopped short of completing his doctoral dissertation. Instead, he chose to apply his quantitative skills to his long fascination with the Early Modern period of history, devoting several years to analyzing the typography of Gutenberg Bibles from the 1450s using computers and digital cameras.

During his research—which cast doubt on Johannes Gutenberg’s role in creating a form of type-making commonly credited to him—he had to create software that was capable of displaying extremely high-resolution images of book pages on a computer screen. That technology inspired him to create a startup, Seadragon Software, that he sold to Microsoft in 2006; its technology is used in a Microsoft program that lets consumers interact with high-resolution images on Bing Maps.

Though his work has helped to build buzz for Bing Maps, Mr. Agüera y Arcas concedes that the site lags its big rival, Google Maps, in some areas. Google has photographed many more streets and roads than Microsoft has for its street-level views. He said that competition with Google is a stimulus for innovation in the maps category, but he avoids doing direct clones of new Google Map features.

“You can always be inspired, but the moment you start copying, you guarantee you will never get ahead,” he said.

Nick Wingfield, Wall Street Journal


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704361504575552661462672160.html