Say you're hiking through the woods. You fall, break your leg, and can't walk. You call 911. How do you tell rescuers to find you? Right now, you'd have to read out your latitude and longitude, for example: 39.341324, -77.716231.
But what if you could send them to the same location by simply saying "mathematics.pelt.skis"?
Or say you're attending an event at a downtown hotel that, despite its single address, borders several different streets and has multiple entrances. You could print out a lengthy list of directions to the correct entrance—or the event's organizers could just tell you to arrive at onion.peanut.boats.
This alternative mapping is the brainchild of the London-based company what3words, which has divided the globe into 57 trillion 3-by-3-meter squares, assigning each a random three-word identifier.
The goal is to provide more-precise locations when conventional addresses aren't adequate—without the clunky 16-digit GPS coordinates that are the current alternative.
"Giving people post codes and even street addresses is just not accurate enough," said Chris Sheldrick, one of the company's founders. "[Latitude and longitude] is really impractical. It's like giving your phone number to someone—twice.… Let's get the accuracy of GPS coordinates, but let's get a human-friendly way to get people to use them."
The company—run from vibes.ledge.double—launched its product in July of last year, but this week it finally turned loose a sales team and is preparing a new, native app that will include directions to its locations.
The map-reading program, Sheldrick says, has nearly endless utilities. In Australia, some emergency responders are planning to use what3words to better find people who need help. Helicopter pilots say it will make it easier to find landing zones. Other navigation apps want to incorporate it to make location-finding more user-friendly. And everyday people could use it to find one another at a music festival or other large venue.
"The world of events could have a very positive platform," Sheldrick said, citing his own background as an event-logistics organizer. The difficulty of herding volunteers—especially in a rural environment—to a specific spot proved the difficulty of providing locations using conventional addressing.
Another possibility? "We could really revolutionize efficiency for deliveries," Sheldrick said, especially for "anybody going anywhere for the first time. How often is that information reliable?" Delivery companies, he said, have expressed lots of interest in using what3words—including a Dubai company that plans to integrate it into its launch next month.
But, of course, for those three words to mean anything but gibberish, more people will have to become familiar with the app. Sheldrick says it makes too much sense not to catch on. "I genuinely believe adoption will be fast," he said.