A London start-up looking to change how the world navigates is reaching millions of customers after striking gold with Mercedes-Benz.
What3Words has split the globe into 3x3m squares and allocated each with a three-word ‘address’ such as drove.market.purple (where the author is sitting right now).
The technology, driven by artificial intelligence and easily accessed through the company’s app, allows people to identify a specific location regardless of postcodes, streets or even buildings.
“The world is incredibly badly addressed,” Giles Rhys Jones explained to BusinessCloud. “If I go to my car now and ask it to take me to Church Road, it tells me there are 14 Church Roads within a ten-mile radius of where I am, so which one do I want?
“You have a huge amount of duplication in street addresses and it makes errors really difficult to spot. There is a solution out there – GPS coordinates – which are fantastically accurate, are a universal standard and cover the entire world.
“However they are really painful to remember: trying to communicate them to people or machines in a simple way is hard and you make mistakes.
“If you mix up a ‘1’ and a ‘7’ you may still be sent to a hillside in Rome – only you might find yourself an hour north of Rome instead of an hour south. You can’t spot that there has been an error.
“We want to do user-friendly GPS coordinates.”
What3Words’ algorithm translates every set of GPS coordinates – 57 trillion of them – to a unique combination of three words, which are randomly generated to keep similar-sounding combinations far apart.
“Table.chair.lamp is in America, but table.chair.damp is in Australia,” is an example offered by Rhys Jones. “The non-hierarchical system means that if I make a slight error, the system goes ‘hold on, I think you meant table.chair.lamp because you’re five miles away whereas table.chair.damp is 15,000 miles away.
“It builds in a correction system which doesn’t exist in any other addressing system.”
There are 40,000 words in the English version of the tech, with shorter, more common words used for UK addresses to boost usability.
“Because it’s an algorithm, the whole system is actually very small and it works offline,” Rhys Jones said. “I don’t need a data connection for this to work. I’ve got all 57 trillion on my phone in all 26 languages.”
What3Words has grown its workforce to 100 people in five years. Most are based in London, although it has teams in Silicon Valley, South Africa, the Middle East and even Mongolia.
If the company is to realise its vision of “changing how the world talks about location”, looking to the latter could be a sign of things to come in the UK.
“Mongolia was the first postal service in the world to start using What3Words,” explained Rhys Jones. “You can go to any eCommerce page, type in the three-word address and that gets passed to the postal service who will deliver your package.
“You can use it with taxis there, get a Pizza Hut delivery there, find an AirBnB… a lot of the population there is nomadic, with no fixed addresses.”
The free-to-use tech was used by Steven Spielberg while he filmed Ready Player One in Birmingham.
It is also helping people navigate around the world’s biggest refugee camp in Uganda, which has existed for 30 years and is home to 200,000 people, as well as assisting the Red Cross and UN with disaster relief in the Philippines and Mexico.
The many ‘tech for good’ initiatives are important to co-founders Chris Sheldrick, Jack Waley-Cohen and Mohan Ganesalingam, says Rhys Jones, but the business model relies upon licensing the algorithm out to businesses, with thousands already using it in around 170 countries.
The key moment came when the team convinced Mercedes-Benz to invest and utilise the tech.
“We met Mercedes at an innovation event and their chairman ‘got’ it quicker than we could explain it,” said Rhys Jones. “Within six months we were in a car, which for the auto industry, is phenomenally fast.
“You can jump into a commercial or consumer vehicles and say ‘hey Mercedes, navigate to table.chair.lamp’ – and it says ‘cool’ and navigates to that precise spot.
“Getting the right brand on board took us from a company solving a real problem in emerging markets to a first-world future tech. When you haven’t got a steering wheel and pedal, how do you tell someone where to go?
“They have changed the perception of the company from poor African children with no shoes and no address to a supercar, worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, which helps get you where you want to go.”
Mercedes-Benz bought ten per cent of the company last year while Sony and Intel have also invested. TomTom, which supplies the mapping infrastructure for the likes of Apple, Uber and Volkswagen, is now building What3Words into its systems.
“We try to sell to a few businesses that are enormous who then tell everybody about us, which helps consumer uptake and in turn drives other businesses to integrate us as well,” said Rhys Jones.
“The end-game is to be the global standard. You might see word.word.word on a building, in advertising or on a business card.
“In the future we might not even have an app because we’re built into search engines, into social networks, into every navigation app.”
Now for the big question: where is dairy.milk.chocolate?
“It’s in Idaho,” said Rhys Jones. “One of my favourites is never.stop.exploring, which sounds like it should be in Alaska, but is actually in Wigan!”