Modeling misery: A 3D tour of homeless camps in Super Bowl city

Technology can advance human well-being, but it can also shine a light on enduring plights. Matterport uses its 3D modeling tech to show you homelessness in San Francisco.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

San Francisco is a city divided and Super Bowl 50 is bringing tensions even further to the surface.

The tech boom of the last decade has pooled unprecedented wealth in the SF Bay Area. Property values have skyrocketed, and that's led to gentrification and displacement. Some say the city's iconic culture is under siege, and others wonder if the cult of technology that emanates from Silicon Valley blinds us to more pressing social ills.

Homelessness, for example. San Francisco has a huge homeless population, with recent surveys placing the number of individuals classified as homeless around 7500.


Click to tour Matterport's model

It's a reality that doesn't jive with the picture of San Francisco as a bastion of creative and technological entrepreneurship. If society is getting better because of technology, why is homelessness so intractable on the doorstep of Silicon Valley?

San Fran-based 3D visualization company Matterport, with help from Capture It 3D, decided to use the Super Bowl and its own technology to raise awareness of a side of The City that broadcast cameras probably won't capture this weekend. Yesterday, Matterport and Bill Robinson, owner of Capture It 3D, visited the homeless tents that line the 13th Street corridor between Van Ness and Bryant. Since the start of the Super Bowl, a tent city has sprung up under the 101 Highway.

The models allow viewers to "walk" through short sections of homeless encampments using their browsers. The experience feels invasive, voyeuristic, and possibly exploitative.

But that's the point. 3D technology is making it possible to simulate reality in astounding ways. That could make it easier for people to edit their impression of the world, avoiding things that make them feel uncomfortable. Or it could do the opposite, bringing the uncomfortable realities front and center.

Editorial standards