It occurred to me just the other day that NOAA’s Eric Hackathorn, whom I had met last year at ISDE5, had then said that he was thinking of making a programmable virtual globe in Second Life. I fired off an email to him wondering if he’d ever followed up on that idea. Sure enough, he writes that late last year he and
his game-developer wife (SL name) Zora Spoonhammer created “Sculpty Earth” which was then extensively reviewed by Wagner James Au in New World Notes. YouTube excerpt:
A clever piece of hacking projects a movie of recent global cloud map images onto a transparent array floating above the Earth, letting you follow cloud patterns.
Very Caspar David Friedrich of me, no?
But that wasn’t the end of the project. In the last few months the duo have created two more Earths, both works in progress. Below one of them you’ll find a Google Maps application projected onto a plane that lets you load KML files, and which is controlled by nearby buttons. I managed to load some of my own KML content, and navigate around, albeit clumsily.
And while you also can’t click on the map to navigate or interact with the KML, the important point to take home from this proof of concept is that visitors are engaging in social cartography — anything that my avatar pulls up, your avatar can see too in real time. SL developers Daden Limited used similar technology in their Second Life Google Maps, blogged here a few months ago.
The map also lets you get a geosearch going:
Sure enough, when I went looking on the virtual globe:
There are far more efficient ways of finding Cairo, of course, but that’s not the point — these are the first steps in radically new ways of navigating information.
Independently, I got an email from Magnus Zeisig where he writes that the interest in his recently reviewed Second Life map of Sweden had compelled him to experiment with making an entire virtual globe in Second Life. He’d also just found Eric and Zora’s Earth — his in comparison is smaller, but with vertical heights exaggerated 100-fold and with accurate bathymetry. And if you walk into the Earth’s center, you’ll see an exhibition he is building about different map projections.
All these Earths aren’t nearly as smooth as dedicated virtual globe applications, or even browser-based virtual globes. That’s because Second Life is a general-purpose 3D programmable environment — so you lose speed, but get versatility. And these Second Life globes are social — visitors share the same world-state — which in turn opens up interesting possibilities for teaching and science outreach to classrooms. It’s early days yet — and in the meantime, these virtual virtual globes can hold their own purely as works of art that play with our notions of scale and space.