You’ve seen the video presentation of Microsoft WorldWide Telescope at TED. Some thoughts:
Google Earth and Google Sky, great as they are, do have room for improvement, so it is good to see Microsoft exploiting some of these shortcomings to provide what looks set to be a truly competitive product. What are these shortcomings? I can think of a few:
- Limited touring function: It is impossible to build a presentation using Google Earth/Sky where you narrate a voice tour of of the Earth or sky, lingering at some places while zipping past others, zooming in and out, turning layers on and off at particular points in your talk… Instead Google Earth only lets you to show each placemark for a set time, or else follow a path at a specific speed, or else let the user click from placemark to placemark manually. WorldWide Telescope seems (from the TED talk) to have a very nifty presentation/storytelling tool — one that I hope gets put to use on Earthly virtual globes as well.
- Google Earth Hack: Google Sky is a really cool hack, but it is still a hack piggybacking on the Google Earth engine. Put a placemark on New York City in Google Earth, and you’ll see it floating between Gemini and Auriga in Google Sky. And Google Sky suffers from a polar projection that is primed for mapping globes: The polar regions in Google Sky can’t show data due to this quirk.
(This is also a problem for Google Earth, except that on Earth there are not that many Google users living at the poles to complain.) These kinds of problems can be avoided by a dedicated application like WWT, which can additionally provide cool features like telescope control.
- Mediocre UI: Let’s face it, Google Earth’s UI, with its directory-style Layers and Places panes and 90s-style placemark popups with basic HTML, may be familiar but is not exactly modern. Collect even a modest amount of KML and you need to scroll through acres of it in the Places pane — that’s not scalable, and hence not very usable. All this is fine when you don’t have anything else to compare it to, but do if you have a minute check out how Apple’s newly released Aperture 2 photo management software deals with potential information overload: Contents of folders/projects/collections are displayed in a separate hide-able window pane, where it can never overwhelm the main Projects pane. And the tools… mmm deliciously minimalist especially in full-screen mode. Imagine my surprise, then to see a very similar esthetic in Microsoft’s WWT when the metadata loop tool is shown in the TED presentation. I never thought I’d be congratulating Microsoft for their UI, but that looks promising!
Now that that’s out of the way… There is nevertheless something ironic about Microsoft coming out with a standalone Windows-only application for the sky while it has a (partly OS-neutral) browser-based application for Earth. Since it makes no sense to look at the sky obliquely (whereas it does make sense to want to look at the horizon in Google Earth), the sky is really better suited for a 2D solution, and that is something web-based apps excel at. When you switch from Google Earth to Google Sky, for example, you lose the tilting functionality you get with the Earth because there is no use for it when looking at the sky. In this specific sense, Google Earth’s engine is overkill for a sky viewer, and it is also why a website like sky-map.org continues to be competitive.
Microsoft WWT and Google Sky, however, do offer smooth zooming in and out, avoiding the discrete zoom levels you see with current web-based mapping tile solutions. This smooth zooming is one thing that WWT does not innovate at compared to Google Sky, though most of the gasps at TED and in this frustrating Microsoft teaser video seem to have been elicited from such zooms by people who have never seen Google Sky.
Sorry, to get to my point: I’d prefer to have seen Microsoft add smooth zooming to a 2D web app and turn it into a true universal skybrowser rather than once again serve Windows users only via a standalone app — and we know it’s possible; look at the zooming in the web-based Microsoft Virtual Earth 3D. Failing that, I wonder if WWT will support KML as a way of sharing content, so that non-Windows users can at least view such content in Google Sky. (Of course, even better would have been standalone versions of WWT for Mac and Linux, and the opportunities that entails for building super-smooth UI elements and tools.) Google made Mac and Linux versions of Google Earth/Sky not (just) because it is nice — the move guaranteed the adoption of KML as a universal standard and massive mind share among trendsetting geeks.
In the end, I think the biggest uptake will come for the application that makes it the easiest for users to add, annotate and share content. In the past, this has been Google’s undisputed turf, but Microsoft WWT’s presentation/storytelling feature may well turn the tables. We’ll find out when WorldWide Telescope is released, “this spring” — which meanwhile gives Google ample time to shore up Google Sky.