Virtual Shanghai coming by 2010

Shanghai Daily comes out with this news item today:

Digital map to provide 3D view of downtown

By Zhang Jun 2007-2-10

BY the time the World Expo opens in 2010, travelers will no longer have to visit the city in person to enjoy a three-dimensional tour of its downtown core. They will only have to boot up their computers.

The city plans to create a digital, three-dimensional map of Shanghai that can be easily searched online. The project will be similar to Google Earth, a site that lets you study satellite images of the planet, but will provide an even better look at the city’s architecture, according to Shu Rong, a researcher with the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics, which will provide airborne camera technology for use in the project.

Users will be able to view the map using a PC or cell phone.

“The map will provide a vivid city tour,” Shu said, noting it will include pictures of the sides of buildings, unlike the Google site which only provides a birds-eye view of cities.

A couple of comments:

  • Just as when France’s IGN decided to come to build a custom viewer, Géoportail, to depict its imagery of France, you have to ask: Why chain content to a specific delivery mechanism? Wouldn’t it be better if IGN and the Shanghai city government made their datasets available in an open format, viewable with a range of virtual globes? Isn’t the whole idea to disseminate this information as widely as possible? Imagine coming out with a special browser exclusively for your website — it doesn’t make any sense.
  • You can bet your bottom dollar that this content will be censored, just as GéoPortail’s is. Then again, censorship seems to be something Google Earth is no longer immune to either.
  • 2010 is far off. Google Earth already today lets you show 3D buildings, as does Microsoft Virtual Earth 3D. The mind boggles when I consider what virtual globes will be capable of in 2010, especially considering the rapid rate of development we’ve seen over the past 18 months.

(Thanks to Robert Jacobson for the heads-up.)

5 thoughts on “Virtual Shanghai coming by 2010”

  1. Dear Stefan,

    Thanks for sharing this article with the Google Earth community. I came upon it because of a geospatially related project I’m doing for the Shanghai World Expo 2010. Here are my observations in response to your well-taken remarks:

    1. Open Format, Open Virtual Worlds. The Shanghai Daily article is vague regarding the format of the 3D atlas of Shanghai. The SINAP website is uninformative on this point, too. It very well could be open. Or, the Chinese may have such a good idea that they need to create a closed system for beta and beyond (they wouldn’t be the first). Or, they may not have thought that far into the future. I’ve inquired of the team there as to their motives and methods. I’ll share this information with you if and when I receive it.

    2. Censorship/Security. In the future, all content will be censored at some level. It probably is already (something hard to determine without certifiably uncensored information for comparison). Here’s where we must trust that the value of openness proves itself, and censorship is kept to a minimum. Still, after Munich in 1972, 9/11, the Moscow auditorium and schoolyard, and the train bombings in Spain and Britain, it would be foolish (and possibly criminal) for any producer of a regional atlas, especially one associated with a high-profile international event like the Expo, to publish data that depicts vulnerabilities and provides getaway routes. In the absence of more information, we’re only able to speculate on what will be the case in Shanghai.

    3. 3D, Now and Then. The current version of Web “3D” available via the leading vendors leaves a lot to be desired. Better was done in the mid-90s, when semi-immersive VR was the gold standard and Web-based VR (VRML) only a poor second-cousin. (SRI International’s “Digital Earth” was perhaps the paragon.) The Web’s subsequent growth provided VRML and its largest descendants — Google Earth, Microsoft Virtual Earth, and now GéoPortail — with a formidable, global platform. But these services remain essentially hyperlinked pastiches of photographs and drawings, with shadowing: not real 3D, let alone real virtual worlds. It could very well be that the Chinese, who are known to be formidable and highly innovative developers, will come up with 3D that goes far beyond what small advancements will result in the current services in the next three years — off the Web, as well as on it.

    …At least, we should hope so! The plans I have in mind for the Expo require a lot more than satellite/aerial imagery linked to photographs, sketches, static models, or plain text — the current fare, which seldom produces an epiphany, Ah-ha!, “Eureka!” moment. Let’s not anticipate Chinese failure. Instead, let’s wish our Shanghai colleagues zhuanji, “a great opportunity,” suggesting concretely what they can do to make the most globally useful 3D atlas possible.


  2. It would certainly be wonderful if a Chinese virtual globe project blows the competition out of the water, but while that may technically be feasible, I would never trust the Chinese government as a source of aerial imagery — not at least in the near future.

    As you say, a 3D Shanghai would show escape routes. The problem is, escape routes are also everyday roads, so censoring them would defeat the purpose of the project. Censoring the Olympic Village would have the same problem — how are the athletes going to get around without maps?

    If you look at the Al Qaeda video in the previous post showing off Google Earth imagery of a no-name exit on a highway in Algeria — are we going to censor this kind of imagery as well?

    If the answer is that we must censor, then I want to see the censorship clearly marked, as the Dutch did on their publicly released aerial imagery. Obfuscating censorship, by for example painting trees over a military base (as the Swedes do), destroys confidence in all the data — making all of it useless.

  3. Stefan, at heart, I couldn’t agree with you more. The truth is, people who perpetrate antisocial acts usually take the time to create their own maps. As with “military intelligence,” it’s usually the people at home who are the last to know; not the enemy.

    The unanswered question remains: how can mapmakers placate official policies based on fear without mortally compromising their work? When do they get to remove “Here be Dragons,” thus permitting people to explore freely?

    I have a Swedish example as funny as your own. (One of the reasons I love Sweden is that it’s a great source of humorous official contradictions.)

    Once while walking on a country road near the Drottningholm Palace, I was surprised to seen a fenced-off area of meadowland, camouflaged to blend into its surroundings. “Oh,” explained my Swedish girlfriend, “That’s just a top-secret, long-range radar installation.” So much for security.

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