A recognizable location was chosen: the Washington Square Arch in Washington Square Park in lower Manhattan. The ZDNet journalist dressed conspicuously: a black hat, black sunglasses, and a puffy jacket. The reporter's contacts had no trouble finding him.
And that's the way human encounters work. A simple phrase like, "under the arch," is easy for a person to figure out.
But how do people tell machines where to meet? "The side entrance, not the main entrance," is a natural-language phrase that people understand but machines still don't.
Nine years ago, British startup What3words came up with a solution: get humans to speak in a coded language that's both easy for a person to formulate and for a machine to successfully process.
The code for "under the Washington Square Arch" for ZDNet's meeting was "Tribe Void Ruby." If there was any remaining doubt about the location, plugging that into What3words's site -- it can be made into a URL -- highlights a 100-square-foot area at which to meet.
What3words's singular achievement is to have divided the entire planet's surface into 100-square-foot patches. The total surface area of earth is 510.1 million square kilometers; that equates to 57 trillion 100-square-foot patches.
What3words gained another adherent this week to its novel addressing system, as automaker Subaru announced Wednesday at the New York Auto Show that it will incorporate the technology into its new Outback models.
"We're especially focused on the human-to-machine use case. And the use in cars, in particular, is a huge opportunity for us," Giles Rhys Jones, chief marketing officer for What3words, told ZDNet in a meeting under the Washington Square Arch.
In a demo Monday, Jones took ZDNet's reporter on a ride in the latest Mercedes incorporating the what3words technology. The car's voice-activated assistant can be told a What3words command and use that to offer navigation, as an alternative to speaking a street address.
Using 40,000 English words in combos of three, you can make a total of 40,000 raised to the third power possible combinations, which comes out to 64 trillion. That is more than enough to have a three-word combo for every one of the 57 trillion patches of the global map. The three-word phrases are listed for every patch on the planet on What3words's website and app.
Words are assigned randomly via an algorithm. Look up the Parthenon atop the Acropolis in Athens, and a patch centered over the ancient temple is "Player Roving Tropic." Cambodia's majestic Angkor Wat is "Regulates Slab Tacky." Antarctica's Mount Taylor is "Corked Dolphins Sirs."
The phrase database has been established in 50 languages, including Mongolian, Swahili, and Welsh.
The technology can have particular utility in a geography such as Mongolia, which is the first country to integrate the service into the national postal service. Some of the population is nomadic, and giving a phrase for a current 100-square-foot location can be an alternative to giving a permanent mailing address.
English maintains a linguistic advantage, however, as it is the only language the company uses to address every one of the 57 trillion squares including the oceans, which are 71% of the earth's surface. Every other language is limited to 25,000 words, resulting in only 15.6 trillion combinations used for land masses.
"Naughty" words are eliminated, as are homonyms like "hear" and "here" to avoid potential confusion when speaking to a voice-based assistant.
After calling the assistant to attention in the Mercedes with the wake phrase, "Hey, Mercedes," it only takes uttering "navigate to what three words, Patio Among Tame" to bring up the on-screen navigation.
"If you imagine trying to put in a street address, either via typing or voice, it's so much more difficult," observed Jones. "When in five seconds, it's going to a precise 10-foot-by-10-foot square, and you can have the confidence you're going exactly where you want to go."
Someday, a car nav system may be able to understand natural-language phrases such as "just east of Washington Square Arch." what3words is built for a world of cars and other machines that aren't there, in terms of their language processing.
Although car makers tend to move more slowly than electronics companies, the number joining the service is growing rapidly, with seven automakers signing on in the past six months, including Ford, Mitsubishi, and Lamborghini. The company has 10 carmakers total and 11 of what are called "Tier-1 suppliers" -- companies that make various parts of vehicles, including navigation supplier TomTom.
Mercedes was the first car maker to join with What3Words, and now every new Mercedes vehicle is enabled for the technology.
"Daimler's Chairman got it before we even finished the first sentence," said Jones, describing how Mercedes-Benz Group AG's Ola Källenius grasped the significance when what3words first made its pitch.
"They are what we call ambitious innovators," said Jones of Mercedes. "We focus on those people."
"Lamborghini said, 'Everything about us is innovation, so we want the latest tech in our vehicles,'" added Jones. And now Subaru sees the phrases as suited to the Outback's utility as an off-road vehicle.
The service is free for drivers, paid for by the carmakers on a per-vehicle license fee.
But the technology is also finding other users, such as first responders who need to locate individuals in emergencies. Delivery is another use case. "The standard Google Maps location using GPS doesn't tell you which part of a building to go to; it just drops a pin in the middle of the structure," observed Jones. Domino's Pizza gives customers the option to use a phrase for the delivery.
The tech has also entered pop culture. It's been featured as a plot device in shows such as "CSI." And the band Imagine Dragons used it as a kind of Easter egg. Their album, "Evolve," was promoted with a word scramble that spelled the phrase "Burger Composes Release" when solved. The phrase was for an empty lot in American Fork, Utah, where the band buried prizes for fans to find.
The publisher Dorling Kindersley of the UK has produced a travel guides series where every recommended site-seeing spot has its three-word code listed in the blurb.
What3words is looking forward to further expansion. Revenue in 2020 was half a million; Jones declined to provide an update on revenue. But over £100 million in venture money has been raised to date from investors, including Mercedes's venture unit, Intel, Aramex, Deutsche Bahn, Subaru, and Sony Innovation Fund.
The company is now working on a Series D investment round, said Jones, the proceeds of which will help spread the technology to more languages, among other tasks.
There is also a need to develop more marketing to familiarize people with the service. Right now, word of mouth -- no pun intended -- may be the only way many people encounter What3words. That, or its use in vehicle nav.
"We've got to get the word out," mused Jones, a task for which the company seems well-suited.